May 25, 2015
An Amtrak train traveling to New York derailed near Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 others. Officials and the media initially looked for reasons to blame the train’s engineer, who was himself injured, for the crash. They are investigating his cell phone to see if he was talking on the phone or texting. They checked whether he had alcohol or drugs in his system.
It didn’t take long, though, for information to come out that the derailment was due to the train traveling at 106 miles per hour, an excessive speed for the curve where it went off the track. The speed limit for that stretch of track is 50 miles per hour and 80 mph in the part just before it.
The question of why the engineer didn’t slow the train remains to be answered, but the nature of the crash nevertheless raised the issue of why there were no automatic braking systems in place to slow the train regardless of the actions of the train conductor.
Different politicians and Amtrak officials have offered a variety of excuses for the lack of automatic braking systems on the line. The railroads, including Amtrak, are in the process of, but have not completed, installing a new automatic braking system called “positive train controls (PTC).” Amtrak has not yet completed installing PTC in the area of the track, and blames a lack of action by legislators for the delay. Other railroad officials blame regulations that require environmental and historic preservation reviews be conducted before equipment for the safety systems can be installed.
Regardless of the problems with PTC, there is an older braking system that could easily have been implemented prior to this crash. The older system is already in place on the southbound tracks on the curve where this crash occurred. But because trains heading north don’t usually achieve the same speeds in that area as trains heading south, Amtrak skimped on the implementation of the older system. Amtrak is government funded, and undoubtedly, were that funding more generous, it would have been more likely to have installed the system on the northbound side.
Privately-run railroads, such as those that carry freight are even further behind than Amtrak in installing automatic braking systems. This puts huge numbers of lives at risk should trains carrying oil or toxic chemicals derail for lack of braking systems.
Railroads in other countries have had automatic braking systems for many years. In Europe, where the railroads have their own problems due to systems varying across different countries in the past, the railroads have had a system like PTC in place for more than 20 years.
This tragedy, and the loss of life and injuries sustained, is the result of a system where rail safety, especially in passenger rail, is not a priority.