Derailing Train Safety

A man walks to board an Amtrak train in Penn Station November 17, 2005 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Rail safety advocates applauded when Congress in 2008 passed a law mandating a technology that could prevent deadly train crashes. But the celebration may have been premature. The system, which would override human error by train operators and apply the brakes to avoid collisions, is now under attack in Washington.

The National Transportation Safety Board has pushed for the technology, known as Positive Train Control, or PTC, for more than two decades. After the horrific 2008 Metrolink-Union Pacific crash in Chatsworth, Calif., Congress finally passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act. The legislation mandates that railroads install PTC systems by the end of 2015 on about 70,000 miles of track nationwide used by trains carrying passengers and extremely hazardous materials, such as chlorine.

This commentary also published by:
Los Angeles Times

But two weeks ago, Republicans introduced a bill in the House Transportation Committee that would postpone the PTC deadline by at least five years, to 2020 or beyond. The matter is expected to be taken up by the full House this week. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation, in response to a rail industry group’s lawsuit, is reworking the regulations with an eye toward reducing, by up to 20 percent, the amount of track equipped with PTC.

Railroad companies and their allies in Congress are trying to delay and whittle down PTC. They complain that the $13-billion price tag for installing and operating PTC is too high, given that accidents are rare. And they say that the current deadline is too soon, especially since experts still are working out some kinks in the technology. For example, PTC systems now can prevent head-on and side crashes, but not all rear-end collisions.

Leading the fight for the delay are the Association of American Railroads, representing freight carriers and Amtrak, and the American Public Transportation Association, which represents commuter rail systems.

There’s no doubt that the safety systems are expensive. But, as a report issued Feb. 3 by Moody’s Investors Services stated, major railroads, “with $60 billion in annual revenue and several billion dollars in cash…have the wherewithal to cover PTC costs.”

Further, rail experts say that PTC technology can provide business benefits, by better coordinating train traffic and improving shipping times. But the main argument for the systems is that they prevent potentially deadly crashes. PTC works by employing GPS, wireless communications and control centers to monitor the speed and location of trains and halts those on a collision course. The technology is also designed to prevent derailments and stop trains from entering the wrong track.

In the Chatsworth crash, the train engineer was sending text messages on his phone and went through a red light. PTC technology would have prevented the subsequent head-on collision. The crash killed 25 people and injured 135 passengers, many seriously.

According to reporting by FairWarning, the NTSB has identified 20 other crashes since late 2001 that it says also could have been prevented by PTC. In all, those 21 accidents killed 53 people and injured nearly 1,000 others, while also causing about $60 million in railroad property damage. That doesn’t even include what was spent on medical and rehabilitative care for crash survivors.

Train disasters can also take a toll on nearby communities, such as the rail crash in Graniteville, S.C., in 2005. A chlorine tank car was punctured, releasing a toxic cloud and forcing the evacuation of 5,400 residents. (This crash killed nine people and injured 554.)

The law won’t be rolled back without a fight. Two U.S. senators, California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, have asked the Federal Railroad Administration for a progress report on PTC, saying they were “deeply concerned” about possible delays in implementing the system. PTC supporters, such as Paul Hedlund, a lawyer for families of some of the Chatsworth victims, says attempts to chip away at PTC are a “scary step backwards.”

For its part, Metrolink is not waiting for the legislation to make improvements. The Southern California commuter system plans to have PTC and other safety features installed before 2015. Amtrak already operates a version of PTC on its Boston-to-Washington D.C. route. But PTC needs to be installed nationwide as called for in the 2008 law.

These days, “regulation” has become a dirty word. We’ve been down this road before, with the American auto industry. When federal laws called for improvements like seat belts and air bags, automakers resisted, saying the benefits didn’t justify the expense. They also claimed that consumers would balk at paying for safety features. Now, of course, no one would dream of buying a car without seat belts or air bags.

American consumers have a right to expect, and industry has a responsibility to provide, the best available safety features. The railroads should say “all aboard” to PTC.

Emily Dwass is a contributor to FairWarning.

Clarification: An earlier version of this column stated that the American Public Transportation Association and the Association of American Railroads are leading the fight against Positive Train Control. In fact, APTA says it is not opposed to the system but wants to extend the deadline for installing it. AAR supports a delay and a reduction in the mileage of track to be covered.

Print Print  

10 comments to “Derailing Train Safety”

  1. Rudy

    HazMat Experts and Firefighters petition Dow Chemical and Union Pacific for safe rail tank cars transporting gas chlorine. Secondary containment is a necessary improvement that must be implemented. See–PETITION C KIT for First Responders Comments.

  2. Barbara Kloste

    I am not against anything that would promote train safety. The engineers have refused to have cameras in the cabs because they are too intrusive. My question to that has been, What are they tryng to hide. Having two engieers in the cab could be equally as distracting . I don’t know if the PTC that Metrolink wants to install is the answer, but at least it’s something better than what we have now..9/11 was a terroist attack and there wasn’t much we could do about it. Sept. 12, 2008 was not an accident. It was negligene, arrogance and a complete disregard for public safety. It was preventable.
    Thank you for your response. Being the mother of the second most severly victim that lived, has left me bitter.

  3. Tom O'Brien

    Haviing lost friends and relations in the World Trade Center collapse, I do not feel that I need to be in a the collapse of a building to understand the pain that families and friends experience. The fact of the matter is we already have a “block system” that provides automatic train control and PTC actually duplicates much of this. I think Don has it right, if we were to improve how we train and monitor operators (perhaps with cameras or additional safeguards to require inctreased clearance to move a train in congested areas or to prevent texting on smart phones). That would be as effective, more affordable and allow railways to build out other safety features that are lessexpensive and just as important.

  4. Barbara Kloster

    Hi Angela,
    You can email me at email hidden; JavaScript is required for more info. We do not give out any names or numbers but I can relate some things to you via email

  5. Angela G

    Hi Barbara-
    I am interested in learning more. My sister died in a train car crash at the age of 17. When you say ‘your meetings’—is there a way to connect with other families or learn more?

    These deaths are preventable and it’s time we start to take rail safety seriously.

  6. Barbara Kloster

    It is quite obvious that Tom and Don have never been in a train crash. Instead of us going to one of your meetings, maybe you should come to one of ours, where the survivors and victims sit in despair over being victimized over and over again. Congress, with the exception of Gallegly, had the power to retroactively change the cap and they chose to do nothing. Veolia was aware that their engineer was texting and they chose to deny it. Not all of the survivors have received their judgements because the Insurance companies have liens on the judgements in order to get their money back. There were 25 lives lost and over 101 severely injured. The injured will have to endure medical treatment for the rest of their lives. This is probably why everyone is supporting the PTC Legislation. T/hey are hoping a catastrophic event like the one in Chatsworth on Sept. 12, 2008, will never happen again. All these victims wanted to do that fateful day was get home. This was not an accident. This was a preventable event that should never happened and with new safety controls being proposed, may never have to happen again. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

  7. Nanci Paulson

    Thank you for your piece regarding positive train control legislation. I fear that what happens with this with the PTC mandate is that it will be will be diluted into something that is vague and, virtually worthless.

    September 12, 2008 was a game-changer for literally hundreds of Metrolink commuters and their families. My husband was seriously and permanently injured that day. Everything we have learned from that horrific event has only served to frustrate and discourage. Survivors, their families, and the families of those killed that day have been victimized and continue to be by Veolia (then contracted to manage and operate Metrolink trains), current legislation and the failure of our elected officials to act on behalf of public safety.

    *The Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 was enacted to protect Amtrak, a national rail passenger service that was near bankruptcy. The Amtrak Act contains a provision limiting collective liability against all defendants, public and private, to $200 million. Veolia was able to use this loophole to their benefit. For the loss of life and severity of the injuries, the $200 million settlement was, in the words of Judge Peter Lichtman, “the total value of the of the collision was appropriately in the range…$320-$350 million.” (Case No. PC043703 Final Judgment of Interpled Funds).

    *Robert Sanchez, the engineer, was a repeat violator of numerous written safety rules. His use of his cell phone while on duty was reported to Veolia supervisor six weeks before the crash, yet no measures were taken to stop him. (Sworn deposition of Richard Dahl, Veolia supervisor.) Records show that Sanchez used his phone to talk and compose/receive messages—up to 180 texts each day.

    *The NTSB, after a lengthy investigation, concluded that the probable cause of the collision was the “failure of the Metrolink engineer to observe and appropriately respond to the signal at Control Point Topanga because he was engaged in the prohibited use of a wireless device, specifically text messaging, that distracted him from his duties. Contributing to the accident was the lack of a positive train control system that would have stopped the Metrolink train short of the red signal and thus prevented the collision.”
    Concluding this, the NTSB prescribed no fines or penalties on Veolia.

    *Congressman Elton Gallegly has introduced, three pieces of legislation to eliminate the liability cap, then to raise the cap $275 million, which would acknowledge the cost of living adjustment from 1997. None of these bills have gotten out of committee.

    Last November, I made a trip to Washington DC and stopped in to speak and leave a packet of information in the offices of Elton Gallegly, Grace Napolitano, Gary Miller,
    Lois Capps, Corinne Brown, Diane Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer. I came away with the distinct impression that the Gallegly’s proposed legislation has become a partisan issue. Imagine that…public safety is a partisan issue! With the way the PTC legislation is being diluted, I believe my suspicions ate correct. While many travelers prefer flight to travel by rail, there are still millions of Americans using trains, especially regional commuter rail.

    Again, thank you for your story.

  8. Tom O'Brien

    Dear Emily Dwass:
    I would like to begin to say that preventing crashes such as that which happened at Metrolink and others is indeed important but Positive Train Control is not only expensive, it is complicated to implement across multiple companies, with multiple vendors and maintain perfect interoperability. Artificially accelerating its implementation is not only wrong, it is dangerous. Fast tracking PTC drains valuable capital expenditure dollars from other important safety enhancing technologies and systems that are just as important. For example expenditures to prevent broken rail, advanced technology for detection of rail flaws that can lead to catastrophic failures, implementation of automated wayside inspection technology that validates the safety of rail vehicles’ components, enhanced information technology for better tracking hazardous materials, etc. In fact the list goes on and on and by crippling railways ability to invest in these just as important technologies, to more quickly implement one where the risk, social, environmental and financial impact is far less, is in itself is simply wrong.
    Congress should and must deal in facts not emotions and for you to attack them for acting rationally is simply unfair. It would be far better for you to learn more about what is being done to improve safety nationwide in the railway industry then to hinge your entire argument on a false accusation. PTC is indeed important but I believe it is far more important for the railroads to have fully integrated proven systems, provided by suppliers with competitive solutions, rather than to ram early solutions down the throats of the railroads. So my suggestion to you is rather then operating in an information vacuum, you need to do more research, attend an Annual AAR Research Review and gain a better understanding and perspective of what is going on.

  9. Don Douglas

    Before we take a billion dollar solution, first let us analyze what other nations are doing.
    Secondly let us consider the approach taken by the aviation network to overcome human errors. It consists of two elements : 1) There are TWO pilots in the cabin.
    2) They are in continuous communication with
    the ground controllers.

    Before assuming heroic ( and doubtful ) solutions ,let us consider these and other approaches.

    respectfully yours Don

  10. Alan Kandel

    I am thrilled to see continued coverage on this extremely important topic.

    It should be noted that crashes between trains are the most preventable of all accidents in all of transportation. Imagine if the aviation field lacked a collision-avoidance capability or if it balked at implementation of such. I can’t imagine such.

    In the September 1994 Railway Age magazine issue, published is my letter dealing with what was then referred to as “Positive Train Control Separation.” In that letter I made this observation:

    “It shouldn’t take a catastrophic event before corrective measures are taken. Yet, it always seems to be the case.”

    Case in point. Witness the Sept. 12, 2008 catastrophic head-on collision of Metrolink train 111 and Union Pacific freight train LOF65-12 near Chatsworth in California’s San Fernando Valley. It was only after this “catastrophic event” occurred that legislation was passed mandating the implementation nationwide of Positive Train Control incorporating a collision-avoidance component on as writer Emily Dwass noted, “would override human error by train operators and apply the brakes to avoid collisions.”

    Consider these statements from the above commentary: “Railroad companies and their allies in Congress are trying to delay and whittle down PTC. They complain that the $13-billion price tag for installing and operating PTC is too high, given that accidents are rare. And they say that the current deadline is too soon, especially since experts still are working out some kinks in the technology. For example, PTC systems now can prevent head-on and side crashes, but not all rear-end collisions.”

    First of all, I would like to know how those in the railroad and transit industry define the word “rare.” Dwass brought information to bear that “According to reporting by FairWarning, the NTSB has identified 20 other crashes since late 2001 that it says also could have been prevented by PTC. In all, those 21 accidents killed 53 people and injured nearly 1,000 others, while also causing about $60 million in railroad property damage.”

    Twenty-one total incidents “since late 2001?” That’s roughly two per year? How can this be considered rare? That’s an average of one every six months. I wonder what public reaction to this is. Furthermore, asserting that “not all rear-end collisions” can yet be prevented because of technological limitations within the PTC protocol, to me just doesn’t hold water. Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed train system has been in operation since 1964 and since that time has not experienced one incident where one high-speed train plowed into the rear of another; a spotless safety record maintained over a 50-year time period. My next question would be: What type of collision-avoidance system does the Shinkansen employ? Other high-speed rail systems around the world have experienced similar results.

    It should also be noted that according to Mark Reutter in “How America Led, and Lost, the High-Speed Rail Race,” ( for its initial Shinkansen service, “…Japan ordered the most advanced computer used outside of military applications (built by yet another American company, Bendix) to operate the line’s signal and dispatching systems.” It was an American company that provided railway signaling and dispatching technology abroad – and this as far back as the early ’60s? You tell me.

    To me, it all comes down to what is considered important. If it’s important enough, then train collision-avoidance capability in the U.S. will happen. The key is this has to be considered important enough. In the meantime, I sincerely hope another disaster similar to the one at Chatworth is not repeated before corrective universal, across-the-board safety measures are taken. On the other hand, it is encouraging to know that Metrolink is actively working on implementing, according to Dwass, “PTC and other safety features…before 2015,” and that “Amtrak already operates a version of PTC on its Boston-to-Washington D.C. route.”

    Incidentally, the title to this editorial, “Derailing Train Safety,” is quite apropos.

Leave a comment