Congress is considering $2.5 billion in grants and loans to help railroads finish installing their long-delayed Positive Train Control networks.
Amtrak will stop running trains on some U.S. tracks if they don’t have satellite-based train control operating by the end of this year, CEO Richard Anderson told a congressional committee Thursday morning.
The national passenger railway, which operates mostly on freight or commuter tracks owned by others, is likely to confront situations where Positive Train Control (PTC) won’t be ready.
“For these, Amtrak will suspend operations,” said Anderson, who took his position Jan. 1 after an airline-industry career.
Trains are unlikely to be canceled in the Northwest, where Anderson has said in official letters that PTC is being tested to launch this year. Southern California will also be ready, he told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
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The hearing was sparked by the Dec. 18 derailment near DuPont, Pierce County, that killed three passengers and injured more than 70 aboard Amtrak Cascades 501. It was the first scheduled trip on new tracks, and the engineer didn’t slow for a 30 mph curve. The train derailed at 78 mph and sent railcars flying onto Interstate 5.
PTC would have prevented that crash, said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which since 1968 has called on the rail industry to install the technology. An alarm would have sounded within the locomotive, and applied the brake if it remained over speed.
Some 153 crashes, killing 300 people and injuring 6,800, could have been avoided since 1968, NTSB says.
Congress in 2008 called on railroads to install the system by 2015, then extended the deadline to 2018, and some railroads say they need until 2020. Amtrak collaborates with at least 15 different networks among various track owners.
House Democrats, with some GOP support, have proposed $2.5 billion in loans and grants to help railroads meet the deadline. Railroads already were loaned $2.3 billion, committee members said.
PTC should be 100 percent installed nationwide by year’s end, but it won’t be ready to operate on about 20 percent of corridors, said Edward Hamberger, president of the American Association of Railroads.
Anderson didn’t identify where Amtrak might suspend service, and a spokesman in Chicago, Marc Magliari, said “it’s too early to speculate” which regions are at risk to miss the deadline.
However, South Florida’s Tri-Rail transit trackway where Amtrak runs was near zero percent PTC-equipped as of last fall, the Federal Railroad Administration says. Where Amtrak travels in the Carolinas, installation is ongoing this summer and full PTC operations for CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks might slip into 2019 or 2020, reports The News & Observer.
Amtrak trains in Washington state run predominantly on BNSF Railway freight rails, where freight trains are equipped and using the system while hauling grain, oil, aircraft parts and other cargo.
However, it takes months to test and troubleshoot new corridors.
Sound Transit says its commuter trains between Everett, Seattle and Tacoma are now connecting to the BNSF train-control network on 76 percent of trips. Sounder launched PTC two days ago between Tacoma and Lakewood.
“The good news is we’re making great progress. We’re quite confident in making this deadline with months to spare,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said. The agency spent $53 million to install train control since 2011, he said. “We were farther ahead than many.”
However, on about 7 percent of Sounder runs, the PTC mistakenly applies brakes, said Peter Brown, director of integration and systems engineering for Sound Transit. The satellite system might think a 79 mph train is going 86 mph and take it to a full stop, he said.
This “speed oscillation” glitch has appeared around the country, and supplier Wabtec is working on an engineering fix, Brown said.
A more basic safety issue is crew fatigue, testified John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. He asked Congress to support stronger rest requirements and to require two-person locomotive operating crews.
On a related issue, Anderson said proposed cuts to Amtrak in the latest budget proposed by President Donald Trump raise “questions about being a going concern.” He said Amtrak would eliminate services rather than operate unsafely.
The administration’s budget would slice federal subsidies in half.
Over the past 47 years, Anderson said, “Amtrak has operated basically as a freight railroad carrying passengers, rather than a world-class passenger-rail agency.” Safety standards should be higher for passenger lines, he said.
Washington state Reps. Denny Heck, Rick Larsen and Derek Kilmer, all Democrats in the Cascades corridor, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., spoke at the hearing.
Even if Amtrak folds, local funds could sustain Cascades service between Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Portland and Eugene, Ore., at least theoretically. Fares cover most operating costs with the rest paid by Washington and Oregon, which would have to find another operator to run 12 daily trips.
For now, passenger trains have reverted to a slow waterfront route shared with freight trains through the Tacoma Narrows. A Cascades train derailed there last July near Chambers Bay, causing minor injuries
Sound Transit, which owns the rebuilt, direct 14-mile trackway through Tacoma, Lakewood and DuPont, forecasts that corridor will be PTC-ready to carry Amtrak trains by June.