Will the Amtrak Crash Convince Lawmakers to Take Action?
By Sandra Dalton, Staff Writer
On May 12, 2015, an Amtrak commuter train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring over 200. The train was travelling north at about 70 mph in an 80 mph zone when, instead of slowing down, it suddenly accelerated to over 100 mph, just before hitting a curve that has a 50 mph speed limit. Had an automated system been in place to slow the train down or stop it, the crash could have been averted.
Why No Automated System?
In fact, Amtrak has been using automatic train control (ATC) on that curve for years, but not on northbound trains. ATC detects speeding trains and automatically slows them down to prevent derailment and other accidents. Amtrak saw the necessity for ATC on southbound trains on this particular curve, so why not on the northbound trains?
According to an Amtrak official, the southbound trains are approaching from a higher-speed section of track than the northbound trains. Southbound trains must transition from a 110 mph zone to a 50 mph curve. Since the speed limit is 80 mph on the northbound approach, Amtrak didn’t think they needed ATC to prevent accidents in the northbound trains.
By what logic?
ATC protects against human error, such as speeding or failing to slow down before a curve. The idea is that if the engineer is distracted or fatigued, or has a health event such as a heart attack, ATC detects the unsafe speed and takes over to prevent the crash. Speed limits, whether 110 mph or 80 mph offer no protection if the engineer ignores them or is suddenly incapacitated.
Amtrak was required to install ATC for northbound trains before it was allowed to reopen the stretch of track affected by the crash.
Still Stalling on Positive Train Control
Positive train control (PTC) is a more advanced and complex system than ATC. It uses GPS, computers, and wireless radio to monitor trains and take control when needed to prevent derailments, collisions, and speeding. It detects hazards that ATC cannot detect, so it can prevent more accident types.
Congrss set a deadline in 2008 for the railroads to install PTC by the end of 2015. Now they are considering extending that deadline. Completing PTC installation will be very costly, and a complex process because competing railroads will have to work together to coordinate the system.
However, ATC, could be installed in the meantime. It would be a significant step toward safer railways, and could have prevented May 12th’s tragic crash.