The recent deadly crash of a speeding Amtrak train in Philadelphia put a spotlight on the technology of positive train control, which slows a speeding train or can stop a collision. The technology is finally on the verge of arriving in this area.
More than two decades have passed since a deadly freight-train crash in Longview, yet the state’s passenger and cargo lines still lack a satellite-based control system to avert collisions.
But the improvements are finally set to arrive here, perhaps by early 2016.
Questions about satellite-based “positive train control” (PTC) — which can automatically slow a train that exceeds safe speeds, or prevent trains from colliding — resurfaced this month when an Amtrak train hurtled off a curve at more than 100 mph in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring 200 more, in a segment where the system isn’t yet installed.
“I can say confidently, positive train control would have prevented this accident,” Robert Sumwalt, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member, said in Philadelphia, two days after the May 12 crash.
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Most of the country doesn’t have it yet, and many rail operators will miss a deadline to get the job done this year.
For the time being, Sounder commuter trains, as well as Amtrak Cascades and freight trains, rely on engineers’ skill, signals and partial train-control equipment.
In this state, BNSF Railway, which owns nearly all the Western Washington trackway, hasn’t quite finished installing its share of the new system, featuring wayside signal towers to communicate with satellites.
“Based on the information we have, they will have all their equipment in by the end of this year,” said Jason Biggs, rail-operations manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Sound Transit will spend $37 million to retrofit its nine miles of track in the Tacoma area, and equip all 17 of its Sounder trains with PTC devices.
A testing period of weeks will follow, Biggs said. Railroads must secure final permissions from regulators, and radio frequencies from the Federal Communications Commission.
“We’re roughly 75 percent complete in Washington state,” said Gus Melonas, BNSF Railway spokesman. “We want to ensure precision.”
BNSF Railway will retrofit locomotives this summer in its Seattle Interbay yard, he said.
Amtrak trains already are outfitted for satellite control, whenever the BNSF trackside systems are ready.
Public worry over train safety is mounting in Washington state, where combustible Bakken crude from North Dakota rolls past two Seattle stadiums and dozens of busy industrial and suburban crossings.
When oil is the cargo, the stakes are high, and PTC would add a layer of protection. An oil-train explosion took 47 lives in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, and since then a string of oil-train derailments or crashes has struck communities in the U.S. and Canada. Railroads and governments are reacting; BNSF showed off its next-generation tanker cars, featuring thicker steel, at a firefighter-training event Tuesday in Tacoma.
Conflagrations have missed Washington, but this state has its own tragic history.
On the night of Nov. 11, 1993, a southbound freight train passed what the NTSB reported to be a red signal, and struck a northbound train head-on at Longview Junction. Five crewmen died. A sideswipe crash happened there in 2003, injuring two train crew members.
Both times, NTSB and railroad workers unions called for railroads to install positive train control, but the industry balked at the development cost. Railroad officials also worried such a tech-reliant network would be overly fragile.
Congress passed a law in 2008 to require the technology after 25 people died in a Southern California crash, blamed on an engineer who was texting at about the time a train ran a red light and hit a freight train.
The industry was given a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, but many railroads will miss that. Costs have mounted to an estimated $5 billion spent to date nationally. BNSF estimates its own startup cost at $1.2 billion.
Those needing an extension include CSX, which moves freight including hazardous materials in 23 states, and has installed 40 percent of its system, reports Progressive Railroading magazine.
Lobbying efforts and a Senate bill seek to extend the congressional deadline by up to five years.
In a related issue, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen renewed its resistance to proposals that would eliminate conductors and leave engineers working alone in the train cab.
The Amtrak engineer in the Philadelphia wreck, Brandon Bostian, drove the train alone.
“It would be a negative result, to have just one man behind the control of an oil train, when you have that amount of responsibility, when just one slip up could take an entire town off the map, the size of Puyallup,” said private investigator John Hiatt, of Puyallup, an ex-train engineer who probed the 1993 crash at Longview Junction. “I certainly wouldn’t want to do it.”
BNSF has no plans to reduce its two-man crews, said Melonas.
A crew reduction would only increase the need for automated control, in case the lone engineer is fatigued. On the other hand, technology could become a rationale for a railroad to cut labor costs by deploying an engineer alone. Long before the Philadelphia crash, Bostian himself endorsed positive train control.
Light rail’s PTC Plus
Sound Transit’s Link light-rail trains in Seattle are equipped with a smaller-scale control system.
In Tukwila, where light rail runs on a banked, elevated track at 54 or 55 mph, the trains are programmed to brake if they exceed 58 mph. At street level, which is 35 mph territory, trains can’t exceed 38 mph or so in the median of Martin Luther King Jr. Way or in Sodo, said spokesman Bruce Gray.
Link vehicles will trip an in-cab alarm, then come to a stop, if one train encroaches on another from behind, Gray said. Red lights forbid two trains from sharing the same block, which is the area between two signals.
In the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, the rule applies to bus-train relations. Signal lights frequently tell train operators to halt in the tube between stations, until all buses have cleared the station platforms ahead.
Head-on collisions aren’t much of a risk for Link, whose trains rarely change tracks — unlike freight trains that routinely do so. If light-rail trains change tracks to bypass a stall or a crime scene, operators follow special orders to run at very low speed.
There’s more to safety
For now, regional trains rely on long-established rules and technologies.
The maximum speed limit in the state is 60 mph for freight trains, and 79 mph for Amtrak Cascades or Sounder, far less than the 125 to 150 mph on some Amtrak eastern routes.
If a freight train reaches 74 mph, an alarm will squeal to alert the engineer. “If he doesn’t react, the brake system does apply automatically,” Melonas said.
In addition, safety is part of BNSF’s $500 million, three-year program in Washington state to replace rough trackway, fortify the mudslide prone Mukilteo-Everett area and install detectors every 20 miles to check for stuck wheels, overheating or shifting loads.
Even new satellite-based technologies wouldn’t prevent collisions with pedestrians, suicidal people or drivers who dart onto the tracks.
Those tragedies are far more common than train wrecks.
In 2013, the state recorded 20 train-vehicle collisions that killed four people and injured 10 more on the regional railroad mainlines. Another 17 people died walking on the tracks.