The Amtrak Tragedy Has Roots in the Swamp

The Amtrak Tragedy Has Roots in the Swamp

The Amtrak Tragedy Has Roots in the Swamp

Lack of regulatory will leaves three passengers dead and a rail-safety system years behind schedule.


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.

While commuter railroads in many parts of the country are often cash-strapped, and Amtrak is a perennial whipping boy for conservatives in Congress (many of whom represent more rural parts of the country outside the most heavily used commuter corridors), the nation’s freight-rail carriers, which own the vast majority of America’s 60,000-odd miles of track, are consistently in the black. But industry analysts will tell you freight carriers don’t tend to see PTC as having a good “investment-to-profit ratio.” While the safety upgrades will decrease accidents, they don’t necessarily lead to faster trains or tighter train spacing.

It was an equation the freight carriers appeared to understand from the earliest days. According to a 2015 report in The Intercept, financial analysts briefed the rail industry in 2009—before the safety regulations were even finalized—on ways to forestall any PTC mandate. Consultants recommended lobbying and financial contributions, and the railroads took their advice. The Center for Responsive Politics found that between 2008 (when the original law was enacted) and 2015, the industry spent $316 million on lobbying in Washington, DC, and donated more than $24 million to members of Congress.

While Amtrak announced late in 2015 that it had installed an operational PTC system on all the parts of the busy Northeast Corridor under its control, three-quarters of other commuter systems, and an even larger part of the freight-carrier-owned track, was not going to make the year-end deadline. Freight lines threatened to halt rail traffic if a reprieve wasn’t forthcoming, and Congress knuckled, passing a blanket extension that pushed the deadline for full implementation of PTC to 2020.

It was a move blasted by safety watchdogs and federal regulators alike. Sarah Feinberg, chief of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) at the time, warned a House committee after the Philadelphia derailment, “If PTC is not fully implemented by January 1, 2016, we can and should expect there to be accidents in the months and years to follow that PTC could have prevented.”

Feinberg’s prediction has, unfortunately, proved accurate.

While a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the Washington derailment is in its early stages, excessive speed (like what was recorded Monday) is one of the dangers PTC systems were designed to correct. But even without counting this week’s tragic wreckage, the last two years have seen other accidents on rail lines from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Kansas that experts say would likely not have happened had positive train control been installed and operating.

Monday’s fatal derailment happened on the inaugural run of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most anticipated infrastructure upgrades. Known as the Point Defiance Bypass, the rail project was originally green-lighted as part of the 2009 federal fiscal stimulus. After years of design, construction, and testing, the section of rail was supposed to shave time off the commute between Seattle and Portland by straightening out the scenic but circuitous route just south of Tacoma.

But trying to understand which parties might be responsible for the accident provides insight into the difficulties present in improving safety across much of America’s rail system. The tracks that make up the Point Defiance Bypass were originally owned by the large freight carrier BNSF (freight trains often tied up the previous, longer route—one of the reasons this new cut was proposed). It makes up part of the longer Cascades line that is overseen by the transportation departments of Oregon and Washington. Sound Transit, a regional transportation authority serving the Seattle area, managed redevelopment of part of the Point Defiance Bypass, including the segment where Monday’s derailment occurred. But Sound Transit operates only the segment between Tacoma and Lakewood, although it did oversee testing on the bypass as it was readied for commuter traffic, according to a Sound Transit spokesman. Operation of the commercial passenger trains on the Cascade line is subcontracted to Amtrak.

When asked about how the fragmented bureaucracy might affect safety, Geoff Patrick, the media-relations and public-information manager for Sound Transit, told me on Tuesday that “a lot of coordination goes into implementing PTC, and that means this is a challenging process.”

Amtrak declined to comment on the specifics of Monday’s derailment, citing the ongoing NTSB investigation. But speaking Tuesday night at the newly opened Tacoma Dome Station, Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson said he is a “huge believer in positive train control,” and that the Cascades line is on pace to fully activate PTC before what Anderson called “the December 2018 deadline.”

But rewriting the deadline timeline doesn’t change the larger problem of a lack of national commitment to infrastructure or federal regulatory oversight.

Soon after the derailment Monday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted, “The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!”

Yet even as many across the country and across party lines have talked this year about the political and tangible gain possible via infrastructure legislation, Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress instead set their sights on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a massive corporate-tax giveaway, and the rolling back of Obama-era regulations—some of which have a direct effect on the safety of the US rail system.

Trump’s proposed budget, outlined earlier this year, cut $630 million in subsidies to Amtrak’s long-distance train service (roughly halving the prior year’s total allotment for all of Amtrak’s passenger rail lines). Meanwhile, despite what might be inferred from the president’s tweet, the administration’s planned military buildup adds $683 billion to Pentagon spending over the next decade.

Congress has not confirmed Trump’s nominee to replace Sarah Feinberg as chief administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (Feinberg left the post in January), but Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao did appoint a deputy administrator, a position not subject to congressional approval. Heath Hall, that deputy, who is now serving as acting FRA administrator, has no prior rail- or transportation-related experience on his résumé, save for an internship at the FRA in the early 1990s, which “began his public relations career,” according to a press release announcing his appointment.

Just this month, under Hall’s direction, the FRA said that it would rescind a 2015 regulation requiring all oil-tanker trains to install electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brake systems by 2021. ECP brakes were endorsed by a wide spectrum of interested parties—from the FRA itself to the industry’s main trade group, the American Railroad Association, as a quantum leap forward in safety, given that an essentially “19th-century technology” had led to accidents resulting in multiple deaths, derailments, fires, and spills. But the upgrade was opposed by Matthew Rose, the CEO of the country’s leading oil-by-rail carrier BNSF (the same company that originally owned the tracks for the Point Defiance Bypass), who insisted “the rule will have to be changed.” And on December 4, the Trump administration changed it.

Given that so many miles of US freight lines run through large population centers, that move seems to value the interests of one wealthy executive over the safety of millions. The continued influence of the freight-rail industry over safety regulations makes it more dangerous, not only for every rail passenger but for everyone who might drive under a railway trestle or over an at-grade crossing.

And that is to say nothing of the time and money lost to delays in commutes and shipping schedules. As of this writing, all southbound lanes of Interstate 5 near the site of Monday’s derailment remain closed to traffic, and the Point Defiance Bypass is indefinitely off-limits for any kind of train travel.

Fully integrating a safety system like PTC across a byzantine network of trains and tracks can be “challenging,” as Sound Transit’s Patrick called it, which is why the 2008 Congress and then-President George W. Bush gave railroad companies seven years to get the job done. But extending the deadline without the regulatory will and the fiscal commitment doesn’t make that process any easier, and it doesn’t make the US rail infrastructure any less dangerous. Bella Dinh-Zarr, a veteran NTSB member, told reporters Tuesday after surveying the accident site that tragedies like the one in Washington will keep occurring unless PTC comes online soon: “Unfortunately, the deadline was moved farther into the future, and every year that we wait to implement PTC to its fullest extent means that more people will be killed and injured.”

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