Key Safety System Not Installed at Site of Deadly Amtrak Derailment

Amtrak derail

By , Al Jazeera

A system Amtrak itself hailed as “the most important rail safety advancement of our time” [PDF] and mandated for all United States commuter lines by the end of this year was not in operation on the section of track that was the site of Tuesday’s deadly train derailment.

The system, known as Positive Train Control (PTC), is a package of equipment and communications upgrades designed to track and control train speed and location “to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed and certain human-caused incidents such as misaligned track switches.” PTC is also said to provide enhanced protection for rail workers along the tracks by slowing or stopping trains near work zones.

PTC rules were originally proposed in 2010 but faced concerns that the 2015 deadline would be tough to meet because of the competing interests and differing technological standards among the nation’s 41 separate railroads. Costs were then estimated to top $1 billion.

In 2012, Amtrak announced it would have PTC operational on all Amtrak-owned parts of the Northeast Corridor (the rail line that runs between Washington, D.C., and Boston and includes the point of Tuesday’s accident) by 2013, but in a January-February company newsletter, Amtrak Ink [PDF], the passenger rail service stated future goals for 2015 included enforcing civil track speeds using a component of PTC called the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES).

The newsletter reported the ACSES “project is very close to being complete and on time,” and said Amtrak was “hopeful that the new ACSES system will be operational by the end of 2015.”

An Amtrak passenger train headed from Washington, D.C. to New York City derailed near Philadelphia Tuesday night, leaving at least seven people dead and dozens injured. While the cause of the accident is still under investigation, preliminary data show the train was traveling well above speeds considered safe for that section of track.

The curve where the train jumped the tracks was rated at 50 mph; the straight section before the curve had a maximum suggested speed of 70 mph, according to local reports. The last recorded speed of the locomotive, mere feet before the curve, was 106 mph.

Source: Amtrak Track a Train, Al Jazeera reporting.

Amtrak Ink reported in its January-February 2015 issue that ACSES was operational from New Brunswick to Trenton in New Jersey, and from Wilmington, Delaware to Northern Maryland — areas north and south of the accident site — but said installation of ACSES on the “remainder of the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to New Rochelle, New York,” was “on the horizon.”

Repeated calls to Amtrak for comment on the status of its safety systems on the Northeast Corridor were not returned by the time of this writing.

At present, experts have not yet said whether a fully operational PTC system would have prevented Tuesdy’s derailment, but preliminary reports describe the accident as the sort of incident systems like PTC/ACSES were designed to prevent.

Reprinted with permission from Al Jazeera


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