Investigators are still trying to determine the reason an Amtrak train that derailed Monday morning in Washington state was traveling so fast, but reports are now emerging that the crash could have been avoided if officials had waited before launching the new service.
The train was barreling at 80 mph through a 30-mph zone–on an overpass across a major interstate–when it tumbled off the rails, killing three and injuring dozens of commuters on their way to work.
It has now been disclosed that Amtrak rushed launching the new, faster route near Seattle before fully installing critical speed-control technology that could have prevented the tragedy.
According to a report in Townhall, GPS-based technology, known as positive train control, is still being developed and won’t be completed until next spring. Instead of waiting, Amtrak decided to put the new route into service, opening a 15-mile span of the track. Traveling at top speeds, the train flew off the tracks as it curved toward a bridge, hurtling train cars onto I-5 below, investigators said.
A positive train control system could have detected the speeding and automatically applied the brakes to stop the train, said Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California professor who has studied the technology for three decades.
“It is another layer of safety,” he said.
Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham said that sensors have been installed where the train derailed Monday, but the positive train control system was not yet up and running.
Amtrak and the Washington Department of Transportation began publicizing the new route in October, according to Townhall.
Calling the crash a “wake-up call,” Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson spoke at a news conference Tuesday evening. He did not directly answer questions regarding how long it has taken to get the speed-control technology implemented, but did say, “It just makes so much scientific sense,” adding, “No one wants PTC more than me. I’m a huge believer in positive train control.”
The transportation industry lobbied Congress to extend earlier deadlines to install the speed-control system, blaming complexity and high cost. The government gave them until the end of 2018 to implement the technology.
Union Pacific, the nation’s largest freight carrier, said it was spending about $2.9 billion on the technology. Industry groups estimate railroads will spend a total of around $10 billion to install and implement the systems, according to the report.
Experts say that Monday’s wreck, and all others in which engineers go too fast, get distracted or fall ill, could have been prevented if positive train control technology had been in place.
In fact, the lack of such a system has been blamed as a contributing factor in at least 25 crashes over the last 20 years, including two in the last four years where a train approached sharp curves at more than double the speed limit.
As of July, which was the last time the Federal Railroad Administration updated its online tracker for the technology, positive train control was installed on 23 percent of the nation’s passenger route miles and 37 percent of freight route miles. It is activated on the tracks Amtrak owns along the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington, D.C., and on Amtrak’s Michigan line. Many of its locomotives are equipped for positive train control.
Throughout the rest of the country, Amtrak operates on track owned by freight carriers and other entities that have made varying progress on installing the technology.
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