Once again we learn the pain of waiting until after a tragedy happens before we make use of available train-control technology. It is unconscionable.
For years, the railroad industry, safety advocates and lawmakers have known that we need to implement positive train control (PTC) to prevent collisions and derailments on passenger-train lines. Despite the speed at which Amtrak 501 derailed early Monday morning, the safety technology has been slow rolled, and now three more families will never again have their loved ones home for the holidays.
What happened on the Cascades line this week was a tragedy. While we won’t have the complete picture of the cause and contributing factors until the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) completes its investigation, we do know that industry stall tactics and congressional complicity have delayed implementing this lifesaving technology for decades.
PTC backs up the locomotive engineer by using GPS technology to stop or slow down a train before a collision or derailment occurs. The NTSB first called for PTC on its Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements back in 1990. For 25 years the government has funded numerous PTC pilot programs, and last year the Federal Railroad Administration provided $200 million in grants to support PTC implementation at the local level. This technology is neither new or noteworthy, but we know it can save lives.
In 2008, Congress was finally pushed to act when a texting Metrolink engineer blew past a red signal and collided with a freight train in Southern California, killing 25 and injuring dozens more. That crash was the tipping point, and Congress mandated PTC be installed on every passenger and high hazardous material route across the country within seven years. Today, nearly a decade later, the U.S. continues to delay implementation, and while we wait, deadly crashes continue. The question is, how many more crashes are we willing to tolerate?
An oft-stated obstacle of installing PTC has been the cost of doing so. There is an adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” But when we factor in the cost of crashes, disrupted service and repairs, and most important, the toll in human lives lost, the costs of implementing PTC don’t seem so high.
The reality is that PTC has often been installed after catastrophic derailments like the Metro-North crash in 2013 that killed four and injured more than 60, and another Amtrak crash in 2015 in Philadelphia that left 8 people dead and more than 200 injured. Both cases involved approaching a curve too fast, as well as common human error due to either fatigue or distraction. On the Cascades line, we will once again learn the lesson that waiting until after a tragedy happens to make use of this technology is unconscionable.
We’ve had far too many delays over the years. Every year we fail to take action, we leave rail passengers and crew vulnerable — they deserve better. Safety delayed is safety denied.