Amtrak said Thursday that it was only months away from installing the automatic speed-control technology that safety experts have said might have prevented a catastrophic train derailment near Philadelphia.
After years of delays and budget constraints, Amtrak said Thursday that it was only months away from installing the automatic speed-control technology that safety experts have said might have prevented a catastrophic train derailment near Philadelphia this week that killed at least eight passengers and injured more than 200 others.
The radio equipment that is at the heart of the safety system was already in place along the stretch of track where the derailment occurred Tuesday, and had also been installed in the locomotive of Train 188, which hurtled off the tracks while traveling at more than 100 mph on a curved section, twice the speed limit.
The system had not been turned on, however, because of technical and regulatory roadblocks that delayed the acquisition of a radio frequency that would allow the system to function properly.
But just last month, federal officials said, Amtrak acquired the needed frequency, meaning it was ready to start testing the system in that stretch of track soon, with the goal of having it fully operational later this year, possibly within months.
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Since the crash, Amtrak has come under sharp questioning about why the technology, known as positive train control, was not already in operation. Addressing those concerns in a news conference Thursday, Joseph Boardman, Amtrak’s chief executive, confirmed that the system was close to the testing phase, adding that he expected that the technology would be operational throughout the Northeast Corridor by the end of the year, as has been mandated by Congress.
“We’re very close to being able to cut it in,” Boardman said. “We’ve got to do testing on MHz radios. We will complete this by the end of the year.”
Questions about the technology surfaced just hours after the crash when Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, said positive train control would have prevented the accident. The safety board said the train had been traveling at 106 mph, twice the authorized speed limit at the crash site.
Positive train control refers to a system of software and hardware technology, including radio transponders, antennas, and locomotive and track equipment, that communicates real-time information about train speed and location to engineers and train dispatchers.
In addition, Northeast Regional Train No. 188 was equipped with a second safety system designed to ring buzzers and bells in the engine’s cabin if the engineer does not touch the steering panel for a short period of time, people briefed on the investigation said. The system, which is intended to prevent crashes if engineers doze off or become distracted, is supposed to automatically stop the train if the engineer does not touch the steering panel after the alarms have sounded.
Officials who briefed members of Congress and their staffs Thursday did not explain whether the buzzers were operational on Train 188 or why they would not have stopped the train before the accident, according to Brady and two other officials who attended.
But officials said it was clear that the positive train control system would have been effective in preventing the accident had it been operational at the time the train barreled toward the curve just after departing Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on Tuesday night.
If the system had been operational, Brady said, “there wouldn’t have been this accident.”
The congressional briefing was led by Sarah Feinberg, the acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, and Bob Lauby, the agency’s chief safety officer. They told aides to members of Congress from the Northeast that the transponders in the tracks were not working because of Amtrak’s difficulty getting access to the wireless spectrum they needed to make the components talk effectively to each other.
Still, federal officials and safety experts also defended Amtrak’s record. Many pointed out that the railroad was one of the few in the United States that was actually moving on time to meet a federal deadline to have positive train control technology operational before the end of the year.
“Amtrak has been in a leadership role on this,” Mark Rosenker, a former safety board chairman, said of the efforts to install a system that would automatically control the speed of the train. “They were talking about positive train control when I was at the board.”
Others, particularly freight railroads, have been much slower to put these systems in place, citing the technological challenges, shortages in equipment, and the availability of radio spectrum, among other issues.
“The sad irony in this accident is that Amtrak is further along than almost anybody in reaching their deployment of positive train control,” said Joseph C. Szabo, the former administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration. “They have been very steady and very committed. So much has been done.”