Democracy Dies in Darkness


House plans hearing on progress of train safety device that could prevent hundreds of deaths

On the 10th anniversary of a head-on crash that killed 25, Congress wants an update on its mandate to eliminate human error by train engineers.

September 12, 2018 at 12:52 PM

In this file photos, workers remove the remains of a Metrolink commuter train on Sept. 14, 2008 in Chatsworth, Calif. The Metrolink commuter train was involved in a head-on collision with a freight train on Sept.12, 2008, killing 25 people and injuring more than 100. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The head of the Federal Railroad Administration will be summoned to Capitol Hill on Thursday, one day after the 10th anniversary of a Los Angeles train wreck that killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

A subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wants FRA chief Ronald L. Batory to provide a progress report on Positive Train Control (PTC), a device that could have prevented the head-on collision between two trains in the Chatsworth neighborhood. Installation of the device was mandated by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the crash, with a completion date at the end of 2015. Congress later relented, under pressure from the railroad industry, and extended with deadline until the end of this year. But lawmakers allowed the 40 railroads that were to install PTC an exemption until the end of 2020 if they made substantial progress on the project.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending PTC installation since 1990. In the years since Chatsworth, the technology could have prevented these fatal crashes:

•Red Oak, Iowa — Two crew members died when their coal train hit a maintenance train in 2011. Contributing factor? The NTSB report says: the “absence of a positive train control system.”

•Mineral Springs, N.C. — Hours before dawn, two crew members died when their speeding train slammed into the back of a train waiting for a signal to change in 2011. NTSB conclusion: “Had a positive train control system been installed on this track, it could have prevented the collision.”

•Goodwell, Okla. — In 2012, three crew died in a head-on train crash when the engineer on one of them missed a signal. The NTSB cited the “lack of positive train control, which would have stopped the train and prevented the collision regardless of the crew’s inaction.”

•Bronx, N.Y. — In 2013, an engineer dozed off on early-morning commuter train, allowing it to speed into a turn at close the three times the posted limit in 2013. Four passengers were killed. Had PTC been in place, the NTSB said, “that would have automatically applied the brakes to enforce the speed restriction.”

•Hoxie, Ark. — In 2014, dozing crew members missed a signal at 2:28 a.m. and crashed head-on into another train, killing two of them. The NTSB said, “A functioning positive train control system would have prevented this accident.”

•Philadelphia — An engineer’s “loss of situational awareness” caused an Amtrak train to barrel into a curve at more than twice the permissible speed in 2015. Eight passengers were killed. NTSB said: “The accident could have been avoided if positive train control . . . had been in place.”

And, according to the NTSB, in the 10 years since the Chatsworth crash, at least 21 deaths and 364 injuries have occurred that could have been prevented had PTC been in use. The 14 PTC-preventable wrecks since Chatsworth caused property damage of almost $176 million.

Overall, the NTSB says, since a 1988 train wreck between an Amtrak train and a piece of railroad maintenance equipment injured 34 people just south of Philadelphia, PTC could have prevented 141 deaths and 2,426 injuries.

PTC is required to be installed on 58,000 miles of the nation's 134,000 miles of railroad track.

In addition to Batory, the subcommittee is scheduled to hear from NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt; Edward Hamberger, whose Association of American Railroads represents freight railroads; Susan A. Fleming of the Government Accountability Office; Amtrak Vice President Scot Naparstek; Jeffrey D. Knueppel, the general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA); and Stacey Mortensen, executive director of the Altamont Corridor Express

Committee members are expected to quiz SEPTA's Knueppel and Altamont's Mortensen about there respective success with installing PTC. FRA documents show that as of June 30, SEPTA, a commuter rail line that services the Philadelphia area, had completed installation of PTC. Altamont, a commuter rail line in California that runs from San Jose to Stockton, had equipped 2 of 13 locomotives, trained seven percent of their workers and was not PTC operational.

Ashley Halsey reports on national transportation, including infrastructure, aviation, autonomous cars and shipping.

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