By Adam Schiff
Posted: 07/27/15, 11:50 AM PDT | Updated: on 07/27/2015
Traveling at 106 miles per hour — more than twice the 50 mile per hour speed limit around a curve — Amtrak Northeast Regional No. 188 careened off the tracks in Philadelphia earlier this year.
Originally, the crash was blamed on the train’s engineer and it was erroneously reported that he had been on his cell phone at the time of the crash. Since then, investigators have explored a number of causes, including the possibility of a projectile hitting the train. The train’s engineer applied its emergency brakes only seconds before derailment, but it wasn’t in time. Eight people lost their lives and more than 200 were sent to the hospital.
This horrific crash was entirely preventable, however, if only Amtrak had implemented something called Positive Train Control (PTC).
PTC is a predictive collision-avoidance technology designed to prevent human error, which is the cause of about 40 percent of all rail accidents. It takes into account factors such as train speed compared to track composition using Global Positioning Satellites connected with onboard systems and the location of other trains. PTC works in concert with these systems to override operator mistakes and to prevent train collisions. If a train is traveling at dangerous speeds around a curve in the tracks, PTC would automatically slow the locomotive.
The accident in Philadelphia brought back painful memories from another deadly train crash for those of us in Southern California. In 2008, a collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth killed 25 people and injured 102 more. It was determined that a distracted Metrolink engineer continued past warning signals and onto a section of single track and into the path of the rushing freight train.
Efforts to implement PTC did not begin in earnest until 2008 when, inspired by the Chatsworth accident, Congress passed the Rail Safety
Improvement Act. The legislation included provisions of a bill that I, along with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, worked on to require all U.S. passenger trains, as well as freight trains carrying toxic or hazardous materials, to implement PTC by 2015.
We are now at the point where all train systems should have implemented PTC, or at the very least, begun the process. And to their credit, some have.
Metrolink worked hard to implement this life-saving technology to prevent accidents like the one in Chatsworth more than five years ago, and it is the first commuter rail company to implement PTC system-wide. Amtrak, despite this recent accident, has also made progress, and will soon implement PTC across the country. Sadly, both are in the distinct minority.
Since 1970, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called for American rail companies to implement PTC, but not one responded to those calls. Notwithstanding the requirements of the 2008 legislation that Congress passed to require the railroad industry to implement PTC by the end of 2015, still less than half of all American locomotives have PTC fully installed.
More distressing still, even as yet another deadly crash this year demonstrated the pressing need for PTC on our country’s trains, some in Congress are calling to extend the implementation deadline by at least three years for rail companies. Many rail lines are also putting pressure on lawmakers to extend the deadline — citing monetary, technological, and time constraints in their push for an extension.
This may only compound the tragedies. There is no excuse for preventable accidents that lead to the loss of lives, especially after having seven years to figure out how to implement and pay for this life-saving technology. PTC is tragically overdue and commuters deserve no less. As commuter rail ridership continues to grow, so must the responsibility to ensure its safety.
Congressman Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, represents California’s 28th District.