It is the kind of after-the-fact report that drives anyone who sees it into despair and then into anger. Preliminary reports indicate that the Amtrak disaster near Philadelphia in which eight people died and more than 200 were injured could have been avoided.
With the right technology on the tracks and trains, the speeding train might have been automatically slowed. Congress seven years ago told Amtrak and freight and commuter railroads to install the technology by the end of this year. But because the companies aren’t going to make the deadline, Congress may extend it.
The technology, dubbed positive train control, overcomes human error with automation that prevents derailments due to speed, collisions and wrong-way trains because of mistakes in track switching.
In the Amtrak accident, the train was reportedly going in excess of 100 mph when it should have been going no more than 50. An automated system would have prevented the train from reaching that excessive speed. An engineer apparently did slam on the brakes, but it was too late to prevent the derailment.
There should be no talk of further delays in the installation of safety equipment. If that requires additional funding for Amtrak and for other carriers from Congress, so be it. It is maddening to think an accident could have been prevented and wasn’t.
Prior to the Philadelphia derailment Tuesday, there had been 29 passenger and freight train accidents since 2004 that could have been avoided had the trains and tracks been geared up with positive train control, The Associated Press reported. In those accidents, 68 people died and over 1,000 were injured. The AP noted that the National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing for installation of the technology or similar safeguards for 45 years.
This is mind-boggling. For nearly half a century safety measures have been available but not implemented due to bureaucratic snafus. And apparently a complicating factor is the various policies of different carriers and the need for safety systems to work on tracks for passenger trains and freight trains.
Congress was alarmed enough by a California commuter-freight train collision seven years ago that it passed a law setting that deadline for positive train control, but railroads complained they couldn’t meet the deadline.
Installation deadline now
Enough is enough. The horrendous accident near Philadelphia should prompt Congress to install absolute, inflexible deadlines and see that they are met. Amtrak has done pretty well relative to other railroads, but it’s not clear why the positive train control wasn’t in place on the Philadelphia tracks.
“For decades we have seen preventable derailments and collisions occur,” former NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman told the AP. “If we do not implement technology such as PTC to prevent these events, we will continue to see them for the foreseeable future.”
And what in the world is going on when, in the midst of the push for positive train control funding and other budget needs, Republicans cut Amtrak’s budget? That was done the day after the accident near Philadelphia, although the details and causes of it hadn’t yet been fully examined.
We can only hope that this accident that should not have happened prompts national lawmakers to see that other accidents do not happen. There should be funding, immediately, for all current safety measures to be installed. Too many times have we learned the lesson that to not establish and follow such a policy can be deadly.
In the meantime, all the details of the Philadelphia accident must be thoroughly examined and discussed in public, and prospective passengers and freight engineers have a right to know whether they are to travel a route without the maximum safety protections.