Amtrak’s Crash Could Have Been Prevented By A Device The Law Requires Most Railroads To Install, But Most Still Won’t
The recent Amtrak derailment could have been prevented by a safety device that railroads are legally required to install by the end of the year, but officials say most will not comply.
At a hearing held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday, federal transportation officials told lawmakers that the deadly Amtrak crash in April — which killed eight people and injured more than 200 — could have been prevented by a technology called “positive train control” (PTC).
“We know that a properly installed and functional PTC would have prevented this accident,” said Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). “The accidents we have investigated have shown us that we need technology that can step in when humans fail.”
The statement spurred debate among lawmakers as to why Amtrak had not already installed the technology along the section of track where Train 188 derailed on May 12 while rounding a curve at more than twice the posted speed limit of 50 mph. (RELATED: Passengers Sue Amtrak Over Train Derailment)
Hart noted that the NTSB has been calling for the implementation of PTC since 1969, and that Congress eventually followed through in 2008 with a law requiring PTC on all tracks by the end of this year. Despite having seven years to prepare for the mandate, however, Hart said that, “most railroads will not comply with this law.”
Joseph Boardman, Amtrak’s president and CEO, said PTC is already up and running on some of the busier and higher-speed sections of the Northeast Corridor, which is Amtrak’s busiest route. He said the technology has been installed along the rest of the corridor, as well, “and should be operational in time to comply with the federal statutory mandate.”
Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, agreed that Amtrak would be able to meet the deadline, but also chastised lawmakers for failing to provide funding to assist with the effort.
“For the past two years, as part of the GROW AMERICA Act,” she said, the Federal Railroads Association “has requested $825 million to assist commuter railroads with the implementation of PTC, as well as additional funding to aid with the implementation of PTC on Amtrak’s national network.”
To be fair, that relatively small request was not among the chief reasons that lawmakers have declined to pass Obama’s GROW AMERICA Act, which also calls for increasing transportation spending from $50 billion to $80 billion per year, financed largely by a one-time “transition tax” to encourage companies to repatriate foreign earnings. (RELATED: Obama Proposal Would Almost Double Federal Highway Spending)
Feinberg’s comments nonetheless cut to the heart of an issue that the two parties began sparring over just hours after the May 12 derailment. On the morning after the crash, the House held a previously scheduled hearing on transportation funding, including a Republican proposal to cut $250 million from Amtrak’s federal subsidies.
Democrats responded by attempting to blame the crash on lack of funding, and countered with a proposal to increase the subsidies for Amtrak’s capital fund, but were defeated in committee on a party-line vote.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio was among the most aggressive in arguing that Amtrak’s failure to prevent the crash resulted from a lack of funding that inhibited its efforts to implement PTC technology. (RELATED: Dems Exploit Amtrak Crash to Promote Big Government)
After congratulating the committee members for their commitment to Amtrak and other infrastructure needs, DeFazio said that, “unfortunately, that is not shared by your Republican colleagues on the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee,” who voted to cut funding from Amtrak’s capital budget, which goes in part to things like PTC.
Republican Rep. Todd Rokita countered by grilling Boardman over whether Amtrak had spent any stimulus money on PTC implementation, making the case that Amtrak’s failings have less to do with the availability of taxpayer money than with mismanagement of the money it does have.
When Boardman answered that Amtrak had not used any stimulus dollars for PTC, even though there was no legal prohibition preventing it, Feinberg offered that, “I’m not sure that is something that occurred to anyone.”
“Really?,” Rokita responded. “It’s being discussed like it’s a no-brainer high priority that has been wanting to be done for decades– since 1969. And this never occurred to anyone?”
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