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Technology to prevent train accidents exists, but Congress may delay its implementation

On Tuesday, the Amtrak Northeast Corridor Train 188 derailed just east of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, killing at least seven and injuring more than 200 passengers on board.

While the exact cause of this accident is still being determined, it’s possible that existing safety technology may have prevented it, had it been in place at the site of Train 188’s derailment. This technology, known as a Positive Train Control system, essentially monitors and controls a train’s motion in specific areas like sharp turns. Theoretically, this technology ensures that trains do not exceed the speed limit, preventing overspeed derailments.

Although the technology may be able to save lives, a 2015 mandate to implement the system across America’s rail systems might now be delayed by Congress until 2020.

Why trains derail

Weighing in the thousands of tons, trains are behemoths that, once moving, take great energy and space to slow down or come to a stop. A derailment can occur when the train disconnects from the tracks, whether due to a collision, human error, a fault in the tracks themselves, or a myriad of other causes. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, hundreds of derailments occur each year, though most are minor and involve freight carriers, not passenger railways.

Despite being around for decades, in America not all train routes operate with PTC.

However, it’s passenger train derailments like Amtrak’s in Philadelphia on Tuesday, and the 2013 derailment of a Metro-North train back in December 2013, that remain vivid memories in the minds of worried commuters. While no official reason for the derailment has been discovered, speculation points to the the train’s high speed causing the accident.

It is now being reported that the train came upon a turn moving at 106 miles per hour — more than double the 50-mile-per-hour speed limit, according to the New York Times. Surveillance footage from the Associated Press shows the train moving at high speed as it approaches the turn:

Raw: Surveillance Video Shows Train Before Crash

If the speed of the train was indeed the cause of the tragic accident, it will be called an overspeed derailment. An overspeed derailment also happens to be the cause of the 2013 Metro-North derailment, when a sleep-deprived engineer ran the train at 82 miles per hour on a 30-mile-per-hour curve in the tracks. It’s believed now that a Positive Train Control System (PTC) would have prevented the 2013 Metro-North derailment, and possibly, the Amtrak derailment, too.

What is a Positive Train Control system?

Considering a train’s predictable path, it’s not hard to imagine a technology that would automatically slow a train when it exceeds the rated speed of the rails — and it exists in more than one form. Many passenger rail services around the world utilize some sort of signal-based technology, including the U.K’s AWS, which forces trains to reduce their speeds or come to a stop if the engineer doesn’t appropriately respond. However, despite being around for decades, in America, not all train routes — including Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — operate with the American version of this technology, known as PTC.

Long story short: No one wants to pay for PTC — not even Congress.

Positive Train Control works by combining radio, cellular, and GPS technology with railway signals to allow trains to identify their locations relative to other trains on the tracks. Trains on a railway pass through signals that divide up lengths of track, during which the PTC system can notify an engineer if there is a train up ahead, if there is a stop up ahead, or if they need to slow down due to a sharp curve or turn.

The important safety feature within PTC is that it can also force a train to stop if the engineer does not acknowledge a warning. For example, if a train whips by a signal to slow down, the PTC system can automatically force the train to stop if the engineer does not manually respond. This prevents an overspeed derailment when the engineer is distracted or incapacitated.

Why isn’t PTC in operation?

Although PTC technology has existed since the 1990s, not all rail networks, including passenger rail networks, use it on all their railways. In 2010, the Federal Railroad Administration mandated that railroad operators must add a form of PTC technology on 40 percent of their trackage by the end of 2015. However, Amtrak and other passenger rail agencies have yet to hit the 40-percent mark, much less cover all passenger routes. Why? No one wants to pay for PTC — not even Congress.

In the U.S., the Federal Railroad Administration is responsible for the regulation and safety of all railways, but not necessarily the maintenance and upgrades. Unlike roads, which are more or less owned by some sort of federal, state, or local government, the 160,000 miles of track in the U.S. is owned by a collection of public and private companies, including the government’s own intercity railroad operator, Amtrak. This creates a huge variety in the quality of railroad trackage and funding for projects like implementing PTC.

Amtrak Train 188 Derailment Philadelphia PA
An NTSB recorder speaks with site officials. The Tuesday derailment has left 8 dead and over 200 injured. National Transportation Safety Board/Flickr

Since different types of PTC technology exist, each railroad operator is researching different solutions, some of which are based on Amtrak’s version of PTC, called Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement Systems (ACSES II). ACSES II is designed by Alstom, a French company, and uses radio signals to track trains and monitor speed. Metro-North uses a similar version of ACSES II that combines radio, Wi-Fi, and cellular signals to track trains and enforce speeds. Some operators choose different PTC solutions that support GPS and other tracking tools.

Both Amtrak and Metro-North have been slow to implement PTC along their busiest corridors. Although Amtrak has been ambitiously adding the technology to thousands of track miles, only a fraction of its busiest route — the Northeast Corridor — currently supports PTC to ensure safe speeds and train operation. Amtrak is still planning to complete PTC implementation along the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2015 to meet the mandate deadline. But it’s also fighting tooth-and-nail against budget cuts that Congress passed, potentially stalling a faster PTC rollout.

For Metro North, it wasn’t until after the the 2013 derailment that the railway installed PTC technology on the curve that led to the overspeed derailment. So far, Metro-North has only implemented PTC on nine bridges and curves along its 775 miles of track. Metro-North is owned by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which also has budget woes, including a widening deficit.

The future of PTC and passenger rail

Right now, Amtrak has until December 31 to upgrade the rest of its tracks, but a bill in Congress recommends that the deadline be pushed back to 2020 to give freight railroad operators more time to implement the tech. The Association of American Railroads is in support of the bill. The bill is not yet on the floor though, so it’s too soon to tell if the derailment outside Philadelphia will affect it. There is also a severe lack of federal funding to support PTC technology, which is estimated to cost up to $10 billion or more throughout its implementation. The mandate extension doesn’t plan to provide much extra funding for this safety technology.

In late April, New York Governor Cuomo announced a low-cost $1 billion loan to be issued to the MTA in order to help fund PTC implementation. The Spuyten Duyvil derailment was cited as a reason for the loan, as the accident “may have been avoided if this life-saving technology had been in place.” However, there’s no clear timeline on when this money will make it into PTC improvements in New York, or how much faster the technology will be implemented.

Amtrak Train 188 Derailment Philadelphia PA
NTSB investigators arrive at the site of the Amtrak Train 188 derailment National Transportation Safety Board/Flickr

Meanwhile, politicians such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer are advocating for other technological advances, such as more cameras along routes and on board trains. The idea would be to monitor train engineers and detect concerns, such as sleep-deprived staff. Potentially, tech can not only prevent accidents, it can make trains a safer, more comfortable form of travel. Unfortunately, given the high costs of these tools and the general apathy for funding public rail, progress only continues to crawl.

For now though, all eyes remain fixed on Amtrak and the NTSB as the investigation into the Philadelphia derailment continues.

Joshua Sherman
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Joshua Sherman is a contributor for Digital Trends who writes about all things mobile from Apple to Zynga. Josh pulls his…
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