Sen. Richard Blumenthal: End delays in inplementing Positive Train Control
Our worst railroad nightmare has happened again - tragic fatalities in a derailment resulting from entirely preventable excessive speed. It was preventable by Positive Train Control, a life-saving technology that can slow a speeding train and stop a collision. Three people might be alive in Washington State if Congress had not delayed the deadline for implementing PTC from 2015 to 2018.
In 1970, after a head-on collision in Darien, the National Transportation Safety Board first called for installation of technology that could remove human error and automatically control train speeds and operations at critical junctures. PTC existed then as it does now, we just lack the political will to implement it.
The NTSB has been consistently urging adoption of PTC technology since then. For decades, railroads dithered and delayed, investing more time and energy in excuses than solutions. Meanwhile, more than 300 people died, thousands were injured, and millions in property damages were incurred during preventable rail collisions.
Then in 2008 in Chatsworth, Calif., a freight and passenger train collided head-on, killing 25 people and injuring 135 more. Congress took action, mandating implementation of PTC by the end of 2015.
In the next three years, railroads did next to nothing and then demanded Congress extend the deadline. Against my strong objections, Congress caved and gave railroads until the end of 2018 to complete PTC implementation. With one year left to meet the extended deadline, many railroads have little progress to show.
Shamefully, Metro-North has made little progress in implementing PTC, despite derailments that have killed and injured passengers. That includes the Spuyten Duyvil derailment in 2013 that killed four and injured more than 60 others. Today, PTC is operational nowhere on Metro-North’s 384 miles of track—a stunning failure.
Amtrak has made some progress— 67 percent of its routes have PTC in operation. That was little consolation for the eight passengers killed in the Philadelphia Amtrak derailment in 2015—when PTC should have been operational, but wasn’t.
The U.S. Department of Transportation must be aggressive and assertive in imposing strong fines and penalties for any railroad that fails to meet the 2018 deadline. Congress must hold their feet to the fire and refuse additional extensions. We cannot afford further delay of this lifesaving technology.
It will cost Amtrak an estimated $150 million to install PTC on its tracks nationwide. The Philadelphia derailment and resulting service disruptions alone cost the Northeast regional economy billions. Amtrak paid out more in claims—reportedly $265 million—than the cost to implement PTC. The cost in lives is immeasurable. This basic math is played out across all railroads nationwide.
Following the law and implementing Positive Train Control by the 2018 deadline is the least we can do, but there’s more. Many railroads still lack other basic, proven safety technology, including redundant signal protection, inward-and-outward facing cameras and alerters to keep passengers and worker safe. Our rail grade crossings rely on 19th century technology. Nationwide, our tracks and bridges are decaying and we lack modern technology to inspect them.
Patch and pray is our nation’s rail funding plan today. We pour meager resources into our system and hope our decrepit and dated infrastructure and technology will hold out for one more day. Service disruptions along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor alone cost our national economy over $500 million each year. The U.S. DOT estimates we have a $90 billion backlog in projects needed to repair our nation’s public transportation infrastructure. Experts have concluded the passenger rail line between DC and Boston needs an investment of nearly $40 billion just to keep pace with growing needs. My Democratic colleagues and I proposed a plan to reverse the backlog—a plan that would put 1.9 million people to work, reduce injuries, save lives and bring our transportation infrastructure into the 21st century. We need bipartisan work but the president has no proposal after a year in office.
The costs in lives and dollars from crashes on our railroads can be saved, but only by investment now.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal is Connecticut’s senior U.S. senator. He is a Democrat.