Written on behalf of Brian Kabateck
March 2, 2018
A stunning number of back-to-back fatal incidents involving Amtrak trains over the last year is raising alarms about the safety of our nations railways. The lack of Positive Train Control or PTC is apparently the root cause of a rash of train wrecks that has cost lives and caused preventable injuries. While lawmakers wrangle over paying for infrastructure, it’s critical to fast track train safety to prevent more passenger train collisions.
On December 18, 2017, the Amtrak Cascades Train 501 derailed near DuPont in Washington and hurtled over an overpass onto I-5, killing three people on its way to Portland, Oregon using a new route. The engineer told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) the train was traveling at 80mph as it passed milepost 15.5 on the route. He told the investigators that he had planned to start braking about a mile before an upcoming curve with a 30-mph speed restriction, and applied the brakes shortly before the train derailed, tumbling off the overpass as it entered the curve. In the wake of the disaster, a CNN investigation found that engineers and conductors had warned their supervisors that they did not feel properly trained on the new route, which ultimately lead to the accident.
On January 31st, an Amtrak train carrying members of Congress heading to West Virginia struck a garbage truck near Charlottesville, Virginia, killing at least one person. Eyewitnesses told NTSB investigators the truck driver was seen trying to make his way through the crossing gates, despite lights warning of the incoming train. Investigators claim that Amtrak and transportation and rail officials should invest more in technology to make sure the crossings are safer, as well as making sure people are educated about them.
On February 4th, two Amtrak employees were killed and dozens were injured when the train they were working on collided with a freight in Cayce, South Carolina. The passenger train had been rerouted off the main track onto a rail siding, where it crashed into a stationary freight train. More than 116 people were injured and taken to the hospital. The Amtrak train was heading southbound, and should have continued straight along the tracks, but the rail switch had been manually set to send the train onto the rail siding where the other train was stationed. The crash could’ve been avoided if PTC technology, which can automatically slow down a speeding train, had been put in place.
Given the series of Amtrak accidents over the past few months, the safety culture of Amtrak must be reviewed and analyzed. People shouldn’t fear for their life while riding a train, but that’s currently the situation. There have been reports of people claiming they will no longer consider Amtrak as a source of transportation due to the fatal accidents that have occurred over something that could have been prevented. The NTSB is urging federal railroad officials to issue an emergency order that would require trains to travel at reduced speeds in areas where rail-signaling systems are temporarily disabled and confirm that track switches are in the correct position before moving forward.
The Federal Transit Administration estimates that by the end of the year, 81 percent of railroads tracks are expected to have PTC installed. Meantime, Congress has granted railroads a two-year extension on implementing the safety improvements.
It was recently reported that Amtrak could suspend service on tracks that don’t have satellite-based train control technology by the end of the year. Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson stated that the railway service is concerned that passengers are at risk due to repeated delays in installing Positive Train Control, which automatically reduces the speed of trains going too fast, preventing trains from colliding and stopping trains from continuing on out-of-line tracks. In this way, the NTSB is hoping to reduce the amount of fatal collisions that could be prevented when taking better safety measures.
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