Amtrak crash: safety mechanism to slow speeding trains was close to operational

Positive train control system was simply awaiting authorization to use private airwaves that would have made transponders along train’s route operational

As families begin holding funerals for the eight people killed by Tuesday’s Amtrak train derailment, officials say a safety mechanism that could have stopped the crash was close to being in operation.

The seven-car Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188 left the tracks just after 9pm Tuesday outside of Philadelphia’s 30th Street station, with more than 200 passengers on board. The train was traveling at more than 100mph, more than twice the posted speed limit. Federal and local authorities are investigating the accident, and criminal charges are possible.

Had an existing safety system been in use, however, the accident may have been prevented. On the Amtrak line between New York and Philadelphia, transponders already on tracks could have slowed the speeding locomotive, but the system was awaiting testing to use the private airwaves that would have made the technology operational, federal officials said.

The safety systems, called positive train control (PTC), were required on commuter and some commercial rail lines in 2008 by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act. The law requires the systems to be implemented by the end of 2015.

Federal railway regulators say the technology uses digital airwaves and GPS to slow speeding trains on bends, preventing speed-related derailments. The technology can also prevent head-on collisions, and stop trains from speeding through work zones, rail regulators say.

In early March, the Federal Communications Commission had just finalized its approval a deal between the railroad and a private purveyor of digital frequencies to begin the safety devices. The deal was years in the making; Amtrak had been working to obtain the frequencies since 2011.

However, Amtrak, a publicly funded railroad run by a for-profit corporation, struggled to complete the safety project under its existing funding.

Congressional Republicans voted to further cut that funding Wednesday, just hours after the preventable accident killed eight people along the rail. No railroad has finished the safety upgrades to date, federal railway regulators said.

“Knowing many railroads were struggling both financially and technically to meet the deadline for PTC implementation at the end of this year, we have twice asked Congress for authority to better manage the deployment of this safety system as quickly and safely as possible,” said Kevin F Thompson, spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration in a statement emailed to the Guardian.

“Additionally, we have twice requested additional funding from Congress to help Amtrak and commuter railroads implement PTC. While we wait for Congress to act, we will continue to work with all of our stakeholders to ensure that railroads have PTC in use across the country as quickly as possible.”

On Wednesday, the House appropriations committee voted to cut Amtrak’s funding by more than $250m from the $1.4bn it invested last year in the publicly funded, for-profit rail.

In New York one of the first funerals for one of the crash victims was held Friday morning. Justin Zemser, 20, was a US naval academy midshipman, according to Reuters.

Some of the first legal repercussions of the crash are beginning to surface. Philadelphia police are investigating it as a criminal incident.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said in a Thursday media briefing that the train’s brakes appeared to be working properly, and that there did not appear to be anything unusual in a track inspection. Federal transportation investigators have yet to interview the train’s engineer, Brandon Bostian.

Philadelphia police said Wednesday that Bostian had refused an in-depth interview, and left a police station with a lawyer. His attorney said Bostian has no recollection of the moments leading up to the crash, according to several media reports. However, Reuters reports that Bostian is scheduled to be interviewed by the NTSB in the coming days.

“We look very much forward to the opportunity to interview him. We appreciate that opportunity. We feel that interview will provide us a lot of information,” Sumwalt said.

Contributor

Jessica Glenza in New York

The GuardianTramp

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