Train safety goes off the rails

Emily Dwass is a contributor to FairWarning (, a nonprofit, online news organization focused on safety and health issues.

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 on a train to avoid a collision, 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, 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.

But last month, 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%, 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 against PTC is the Assn. of American Railroads, representing freight trains and Amtrak, as well as the American Public Transportation Assn., which represents commuter rail systems.

There’s no doubt that positive train control 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 PTC 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 so that it can halt those on collision courses. The technology is also designed to prevent derailments and stop trains from entering the wrong tracks.

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

According to the news organization FairWarning, the NTSB has identified 20 other crashes since late 2001 that it says could have been prevented by PTC systems. 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 figure doesn’t include the millions 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, in which 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 backward.”

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 route. But the PTC system 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 such as 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.