On Monday, an Amtrak train, traveling well above the posted speed limit, derailed, resulting in multiple fatalities and scores more injured among the passengers and crew.
If that sounds familiar—infuriatingly familiar—it should.
Monday’s derailment—which left three dead and approximately 70 wounded—occurred when a passenger train traveling at more than 80 miles per hour jumped a curve south of Tacoma, Washington, that had a listed speed limit of 30 miles per hour. That description bears unsettling similarities to a May 2015 accident, when an Amtrak commuter train moving over 100 miles per hour hit a part of the tracks outside Philadelphia that had a posted limit of 50 miles per hour. That derailment killed eight and injured over 200.
Heightening the connection between these two deadly derailments is the absence of decades-old safety technology that likely could have saved not only the lives of the 11 people lost in those two events but prevented at least 25 other accidents over the last 12 years, which resulted in 65 fatalities.
In an era where there is apparent bipartisan consensus on the need to repair and upgrade the country’s transportation infrastructure, a rail-safety system known as positive train control (PTC) seems like an obvious investment. PTC is a collection of computers, sensors, transponders, and radios that coordinate to monitor train speed and location to prevent accidents caused by excessive speed, misaligned switches, and other potentially adverse track situations. In the case of both the Washington and Pennsylvania derailments, a functioning PTC system would likely have detected the unsafe speeds and automatically slowed or stopped the trains.
The technology—which has existed in some form since at least 1970—was included in a 2008 act of Congress that required PTC to be operational on almost all United States rail lines by the end of 2015. But between the final regulations’ being adopted in 2010 and the Philadelphia derailment just seven months before that 2015 deadline, the system had been installed on only a small fraction of the nation’s railways. Investigative reports immediately after the Philly accident raised questions about why so little had been done and renewed calls for rapid deployment of PTC, but the response from Capitol Hill that year betrays a set of different concerns.
Within days of that Philadelphia accident, House Republicans moved to slash Amtrak funding by 18 percent, but the real focus in Washington, DC, for both lawmakers and much of the rail industry, was pushing the PTC requirement well past the original December 2015 deadline. While there are certainly technical challenges to implementing an integrated safety system, the main hurdle, according to rail-industry trade groups, was cost—over $12 billion, as estimated at the time.