Currently Available Technology May Have Prevented Fatal Amtrak Crash. But Congress Never Funded It.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Amtrak train derailment Philadelphia on Tuesday

The train involved in the deadly crash in Pennsylvania on Tuesday was reportedly going more than 100 miles per hour in a 50 MPH zone, according to federal officials. Technology that could have remotely slowed the train, which the president of Amtrak has called “the most important rail safety advancement of our time,” has been installed on much of the Northeast Corridor, but was not operational in the section where the train derailed — and if some in the Senate have their way, it may not be in place for another five years.

For decades, the National Transportation Safety Board has urged the the nation’s railroads to implement a technology called positive train control systems (PTC). This technology would allow railroads to use GPS to stop or slow trains in cases of driver emergencies, switches left in the wrong position, hijacking, natural disasters, or other human error. In 2008, Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which required the nation’s busiest railroad operators to have these technologies fully in place by December 2015.

At the time, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), noted that a Union Pacific freight train had recently collided head on with a Metrolink commuter train in Chatsworth, CA, killing 25 and injuring 135. The driver, who was reportedly texting, failed to follow a stop signal — an error that could have been rectified by PTC. “While I would have preferred that the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act mandate positive train control in high risk areas by 2012, I am pleased this bill takes a step in the right direction,” she noted. The technology might also have prevented a 2013 train crash in Spain in which scores of passengers were killed after a driver took a curve at double the speed limit.

But chronically cash-strapped Amtrak has struggled to put in place its Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) PTC technology system on the timetable it planned. Its president said in 2012 that, “PTC is the most important rail safety advancement of our time and Amtrak is strongly committed to its expanded use to enhance safety for our passengers, employees and others with whom we share the tracks across our national network,” but to date much of the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor still lacks the ACSES system. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration told ThinkProgress that “The area of track where [Tuesday’s] accident occurred does not have PTC” in place yet.

Rather than provide the necessary funding to allow Amtrak to meet the rapidly approaching mandate, the GOP-controlled U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines to cut about a fifth of Amtrak’s annual federal funds.

Instead, a bill proposed in March by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) would extend the deadline for PTC implementation until December 2020. “We must work to do everything we can to improve train safety and accident prevention without burdening our nation’s freight and passenger rail industry,” he argued in his announcement press release, “Unmanageable deadlines could result in higher costs and a disruption of service.” Thirteen Senate colleagues have co-sponsored the bill. A spokeswoman for Blunt did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry about whether his thinking has changed in light of Tuesday’s crash.

In a speech last month opposing the delay, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) noted that “within the past decade alone, the National Transportation Safety Board has completed more than two dozen train accident investigations that took 65 lives and injured over 1,100 people—all of this, according to the NTSB, could have been prevented by PTC.” It appears likely the Pennsylvania tragedy will add to that number.


A spokeswoman for Blunt sent ThinkProgress audio clips of the Senator discussing Amtrak on Wednesday. The clips make no mention of his PTC deadline legislation, Blunt said that he expects Congress will attempt to find out “what happened with that accident, why it happened, and what you need to do to do our best to see that it doesn’t happen again.”

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Amtrak’s president said Thursday that the PTC system has been installed for the Philadelphia section where the crash occurred, but has not yet been fully tested or activated. This post has been updated accordingly.

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