Statement of REC: Amtrak 501 disaster and the need for Positive Train Control

On Monday, December 18, 2017, an Amtrak Cascades train operating from Seattle to Portland (Amtrak 501) had derailed on a overpass of Interstate 5 in the state of Washington.   CNN is reporting that three people were killed in that crash.  Two of whom were identified as rail transit enthusiasts from the Southern California area who were on the train, likely because it was an inagural run of a new Amtrak Cascades route.  

It has also been reported by numerous news sources that the train was going 80 miles per hour when it went into the curve that was the site of the derailment.  That section of track is speed limited at 30 miles per hour.  

On September 12, 2008, in REC's old home town of Chatsworth, California, a northbound Metrolink Ventura County Line train missed a red signal and collided head on with southbound Union Pacific freight train killing 25 passengers and injuring over 100.  In this case, it was later determined that the Metrolink operator was texting and missed the red signal.  An accident similar to what happened in Washington happened in Philadelphia in 2015.  In this case, the operator was distracted by radio traffic regarding another train being stricken by rocks.

Positive Train Control (PTC) systems are currently being installed on America's railroads.  Under regulations passed by the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) in the wake of the passage of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (as amended by the Survace Transportation Extension Act of 2015), railroads are required to implement PTC on major mainline railroads by the end of 2018 (even though they can request an extension until 2020).  

PTC consists of radio transceivers located wayside (along the tracks) and units located inside locomotives.  PTC can warn train operators of potential collisions and speed limited track sections.  More advanced PTC installations would actually take control of the train overriding the train operator's orders in order to prevent an accident from occuring. 

The section of track where the Amtrak 501 disaster took place was in the process of having PTC installed, therefore there was no PTC at the time of the accident. [CNN]

PTC faces three major obstacles:

  • First, it has no dedicated spectrum.  Different railroads are implementing PTC in different frequency bands.  The more popular place for PTC systems is in a portion of the 216~220 MHz band which is used by other services including the Automated Marine Telecommunications Service.  Because this spectrum is being held by a few major license holders, it requires various deals and regulatory negotiations to make the spectrum available for PTC use.  After the Chatsworth disaster, which could have been prevented with PTC implemented, the FCC was able to reallocate AMTS spectrum for PTC use in Southern Claifornia.
  • Second, there is no standardized system.  There are several different technologies out there and each railroad is implementing differing technologies.  Amtrak and commuter railroads use railroad track that is actually owned, operated and/or dispatched by the freight railroad (BNSF, CSX, NS, etc.) and some rolling stock, including long haul trains may travel on different railroads throughout the course of their trip.  Therefore, for a critical safety system, we need some industry standardization. 
  • FInally, installations in some areas are under controversy due to existing regulations and laws regarding environmental impact.  In 2013 and 2014, there was a proceeding and eventual process at the FCC to address the issues, mainly related to Native American impacts to the addition of wayside antennas and towers to implement this critical safety system.

Our country needs a much better rail infrastructure overall. I have ridden the rails Japan, the UK and continental Europe and I can tell you, the infrastructure is much better constructed and operated with far less sharing with freight . Our major corridors (LOSSAN, Northeast Corridor and even the Portland to Seattle corridor where this week's accident occured as well as others) need more infrastructure dedicated to passenger rail which includes less freight sharing, dual tracking, electrification and full implementation of PTC.  

We need to continue to push the public and private sector to implement and improve PTC to assure passenger rail safety, especially on our shared systems.

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