The Technology to Control Trains' Speed Exists. Why Don't More Have It?
By Matt Pearce and Ralph Vartabedian
After a speeding Amtrak train derailed during its first trip on a new rail line -- on the heels of two deadly passenger rail crashes blamed on high speed since 2015 -- safety experts on Tuesday asked why the train did not have the latest automated control system.
The train was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone on a newly opened $181-million segment of track south of Seattle, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Train cars spilled onto busy Interstate 5 and killed three train passengers.
The new 14.5-mile bypass, developed by the local government agency Sound Transit, was designed to allow the train to travel at faster speeds by avoiding cargo traffic.
But the passage was not yet equipped with what is known as a "positive train control system." Such systems automatically slow down trains when they are approaching curves too quickly or headed toward a collision with another train.
Sound Transit is working to install the complex electronic system, having outfitted the majority of the equipment on its tracks and trains, but does not expect the automatic system to be operational until the second quarter of 2018, said spokesman Geoff Patrick.
When everything else goes wrong, the positive train control is supposed to intervene. Investigators said the lack of such a system contributed to eight deaths in an Amtrak accident in 2015 and a single fatality in a New Jersey Transit crash in 2016.
"Why they didn't have positive train control is a question in my mind," said Michael McGinley, a railroad safety expert and track engineer. "Why wouldn't they build a new system with the latest technology?"
The simple answer is that U.S. railroads and their government regulators have been slow to implement the tricky system, leaving the majority of trains unprotected. McGinley noted that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Communications Commission, among other federal agencies, took more than a year to coordinate their rules for the system.
Much of the freight railroad industry fought the regulations, arguing it was not economical. And when the companies were finally ordered to adopt the technology, suppliers were backed up to design and produce the custom systems.
"I think it should make people very angry," Keith Millhouse, the former board chairman for Southern California's Metrolink commuter rail system, said of the lack of positive train control on the Washington track. Metrolink installed positive train control after the 2008 Chatsworth train disaster, which was caused by a texting Metrolink engineer.
Congress had originally given the nation's rail services until 2015 to finish installing positive train control systems on their lines. But that deadline was extended until the end of 2018 as rail officials complained about the technical challenges of implementing the safeguards.
To positive train control advocates such as Millhouse, that delay has been deadly.
"It was clear that train could not handle that curve going 80 miles an hour," Millhouse said of Monday's Amtrak crash. "Given the fact positive train control was mandated in the Rail Safety Act of 2008, the delays in getting it implemented around the country are really inexcusable, and it's cost people their lives."
Patrick, the Sound Transit spokesman, said installation of the positive train control was not behind schedule and that the agency always intended to have it operational some months after the service began. He noted that other segments of the Amtrak rail system between Seattle and Portland, Ore., also do not have operational systems.
NTSB officials gathered the speed data from the rear engine of the 14-car train, which appears to be the only car that did not derail on a bridge over Interstate 5. About five crew members and 80 passengers were on board.
However, it's "too early to tell" why the train was traveling so fast in a slow zone, NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a Monday night news conference, as federal investigators began arriving at the scene of the crash.
She did not say whether investigators believed speed was the cause of the derailment and added that the train crew had not been interviewed yet.
"We will be looking at all the different areas of this accident" to look for possible factors leading to the crash, Dinh-Zarr said. "We don't have a great deal of information to report."
Typically, train engineers are supplied with "employee timetables" that include speed limits on every inch of the track they will go over.
About one mile before a speed-restricted curve, signs are posted notifying the engineer of a speed change. And engineers are required to be "territory qualified" and familiar with their route, particularly on an inaugural journey like the one the Amtrak train was taking, said McGinley, a railroad safety expert and track engineer.
The Amtrak's front locomotive was reportedly carrying two engineers when it crashed, not the typical single train operator used on most trains. The presence of two engineers will probably be examined by investigators.
"Whether they were distracted when they passed the speed sign, we don't know," said Steven Ditmeyer, a retired research and development chief at the Federal Railroad Administration.
Monday's crash seems to share some similarities with a 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, which derailed after a distracted engineer entered a curve too quickly. At a 2016 meeting announcing the board's findings of the Philadelphia crash's causes, NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said positive train control would have stopped "this entirely preventable tragedy."
"Unless positive train control is implemented soon, I'm very concerned that we're going to be back in this room again, hearing investigators detail how technology that we have recommended for more than 45 years could have prevented yet another fatal rail accident," Hart said at the May 17, 2016, meeting.
The three dead on the train included two rail aficionados, Zack Willhoite and Jim Hamre, who were on board for the inaugural journey.
Willhoite worked as an IT customer service support specialist for Pierce Transit, a Pierce County transit agency.
"Behind the scenes he was a writer and advocate for better transit for all," tweeted Pierce Transit board member Chris Karnes, a crash survivor, who said Willhoite had also helped the board with IT issues. "He will be missed."
Hamre was a board member for the Rail Passengers Assn., a transit advocacy group, and he formerly worked at the Washington State Department of Transportation.
"Jim combined personability and kindness, and paired it with an intricate and detailed knowledge of transit policy and technical insight," the association said in a statement. "This made him an extremely powerful advocate and an inspiration for others." Willhoite was also a member of the association.
Tuesday was expected to be the first full day on the scene for NTSB investigators. Dinh-Zarr, the board member, said investigators were often on scene for seven to 10 days. It's common for reports issuing probable-cause findings for the reasons for crashes to take a year or longer.
"Our mission is not just to understand what happened, but why it happened, and to recommend changes so we can prevent another tragedy from happening again," Dinh-Zarr said, noting that the NTSB has recommended the implementation of positive train control for years.
Millhouse, the former Metrolink chairman, urged swifter action.
"The NTSB report will be very exhaustive but will take a year or 18 months to come out," Millhouse said. "In the interim, the people of Washington and Oregon just can't sit back and cross their fingers and hope nothing happens again. They have to be proactive now and take measures with their system."
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