Positive Train Control: What Use is an Inactive or Absent Safety Feature?

Michael GrossmanFebruary 15, 2018 5 minutes

The past few months have certainly not been good for trains. Multiple high-profile wrecks--three in as many months--have brought the public's gimlet eye down upon Amtrak, one of the most recognizable names in train transportation.

For those who don't follow the news (who could blame you these days?), here's a quick summary of the most recent Amtrak crashes:

  • Sunday, February 4: An Amtrak train crashed into a parked freight train owned by CSX Transportation. At the time of the collision the CSX train was empty and immobile on a siding in Cayce, South Carolina. The crash killed the Amtrak train's conductor and engineer, and an additional 116 people aboard the train suffered minor injuries.

    Investigators determined that a switch on the rail line was locked in the wrong position, which directed the Amtrak train toward the stationary CSX train. Work crews were allegedly updating important operational technology on the tracks at the time of the wreck.

  • Wednesday, January 31: At a railroad crossing in Crozet, VA, a chartered Amtrak train named Congressional Special Train 923 ran into a garbage truck, killing a passenger in the truck and seriously injuring its driver.

    Investigators confirmed the crossing had functioning crossbars and flashing warning lights, and a witness indicated that these measures were engaged while the truck tried to cross the tracks before the train came through. Numerous Republican lawmakers and Congressmen happened to be passengers on the train, but none suffered serious injuries in the collision.

  • Monday, December 18: The story that brought Amtrak back into the public crosshairs after over a year of relatively-peaceful operation, Amtrak train 501 derailed in DuPont, WA, south of Seattle. The train was traveling at around 80 mph when it entered a curve meant to be taken at no more than 30 mph. The locomotive and all twelve attached cars left the rails as the train approached an overpass, falling to the road below. Three train passengers were killed and dozens of others, both passengers and motorists below the overpass, were injured.

How Does This Happen?

There were several theories about the derailments--some factual, some false to the point of paranoid delusion. On the least plausible end of the spectrum are allegations that members of the far-left "antifa" political movement, named for their alleged anti-fascist beliefs, sabotaged the tracks. The rumors began in December but intensified after the accident involving Republican lawmakers, seen by some as antifa's political nemeses and possibly ideal targets. Investigations determined that the protest movement wasn't involved with any of the crashes, which came as little shock to sane people.

Somewhere in the middle were President Trump's tweets suggesting that unstable or damaged tracks at the crash sites may be to blame. Investigation proved those theories to be incorrect, but politics and logistics of infrastructure reform aside the president is not wrong that thousands of miles of train tracks are in dire need of billions of dollars' worth of repair.

The true explanations may not really involve aging tracks or hippie anarchists, though: Some have noted that in each case something was wrong with train-related electronic systems, including a specially-programmed automatic braking system called positive train control.

Positive Train Control: PTC, PT Do

Amtrak's checkered past with crashes ranges back to the 1980's, and the company has struggled to add new safety improvements as ridership continued to grow. One of the most notable developments was the train protection system called positive train control. PTC is a collection of computers, sensors, and radios that coordinate to monitor train speed and location to help prevent accidents from various complications (including excess speed, which was a major issue in the Washington crash). Unfortunately, the system's implementation has been fraught with complications and delays.

For instance, much was said about the inaction of PTC on Amtrak 501 in Washington. The stories are a little mixed up; one claims that PTC was active on the engine itself but its complementary system on the train tracks wasn't installed. Another piece quotes the track owner, saying the system was in place on the tracks but wasn't activated at the time of the derailment. Still another says the train's PTC was installed but not operational when it took its maiden voyage. Many stories relate the difficulties faced by the train's operators and that it entered a curved track at more than twice the speed limit, but a functioning PTC system might have mitigated both those issues.

In short, the news is doing what it so often does these days and running with every detail it can find, no matter how contradictory or confusing. Regardless of exactly what state the positive train control was in when the train went off the tracks, though, all accounts are clear that it didn't do anything, which is obviously a problem--an inactive safety feature is useless.

Unless such a feature is fully installed and active, it can't be of any help when something goes wrong. Imagine if car companies put airbags in their vehicles without sensors or inflators. They're technically present, but they don't actually do anything (though in some cases that might inadvertantly have done drivers a favor). At that point can they still be considered a "safety feature?" I don't think so. An inert airbag is no more helpful than the cupholders are in a crash.

Railroads Can't Keep Dodging Responsibility.

Most seem to agree that Amtrak has had plenty of time to get its act together and install positive train control on its tracks and trains. The integration of PTC likely would have helped avoid many serious and damaging crashes--federal officials have said PTC could have prevented "hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries" over the period since it was first developed. In fact, its overall performance as an electronic failsafe led the government to mandate its integration into the majority of the U.S. rail network.

In 2008 Congress originally set the PTC implementation deadline for December 15, 2015. Then-president George W. Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act into law in October 2008, and railroad conglomerates around the country started looking into upgrading.

If we believe the various rail associations involved in setting up this nationwide safety network, were and continue to be to be a difficult task. Many rail companies don't have the budget to outfit their lines with PTC technology, and despite ordering them to do so Congress provided no funding. Moreover, retrofitting lines with new technology involves designing, manufacturing, and testing the technology before it can "go live." Because PTC involves radio technology the companies have also needed to obtain leases on radio operation throughout their entire network, creating endless headaches negotiating with the FCC and individual owners.

With all that in mind, former president Barack Obama signed a 3-year extension to the upgrade mandate in 2015, moving the deadline to December 2018. For those keeping score that's nine-going-on-ten years the industry has been told to fix this problem and now in 2018--the year we occupy--we've already seen two fatal Amtrak wrecks.

Railroads have to stop trying to expand before guaranteeing the safety of their current routes. The DuPont crash happened during the train's very first trip along the newly-built Point Defiance Bypass, a route constructed to accommodate the Pacific Northwest's increasing demand for mass transit options. Opening the route for business before it's 100% ready--especially its safety measures--seems highly negligent.

Railroads helped build this country and helped make its westward expansion possible, but the days of Manifest Destiny and wild buffalo on the tracks are long past. Rather than building more new routes at a breakneck pace, train conglomerates must seek to secure what already exists. They can do that by ensuring their trains are safe, which benefits them by satisfying the government and commuters alike. The public's unsympathetic eye lands upon them every time one of their engines horrifically derails and they end up pointing fingers at everyone but themselves, fooling no one.

No more excuses, no more extensions, and no new routes until the existing ones are actually safe.