Commuter railroads carrying hundreds of millions of passengers a year should learn the early lessons of last month’s deadly Amtrak derailment and immediately make stopgap automatic-braking fixes, according to a federal safety advisory released Tuesday. If they can’t do that, they should add a second person to their locomotive cabs or increase onboard communications to prevent engineers from speeding, it said.
The advisory issued by the Federal Railroad Administration comes at a time when most railroads say they will miss Congress’s year-end deadline for employing a more sophisticated and far-reaching automatic-braking technology, known as positive train control.
A survey by the American Public Transportation Association found that just 29 percent of commuter rail agencies say they will make the December deadline. Freight railroad companies say they will complete installation along just 18 percent of the required 62,364 miles by the deadline, complicating matters for commuter lines because passenger trains often ride on freight-owned tracks.
Washington-area lines carrying commuters into the nation’s capital from Maryland and Virginia — MARC and Virginia Railway Express — are among the railroads that won’t have the congressionally mandated safety systems operational by the deadline, officials with those companies said. Both said they will have onboard electronics put in but will still need to complete the complex task of linking up with technology that is the responsibility of other rail lines, including Amtrak and CSX.
As for Tuesday’s safety advisory, “Amtrak and CSX operate independently so details on the actual implementation of the new recommendations may vary,” the Maryland Transit Administration said in a statement.
VRE spokesman Bryan L. Jungwirth said VRE has older automatic-breaking features in place that would stop a speeding train and prevented an Amtrak-like derailment on its system.
Tuesday’s safety advisory for passenger railroads follows last month’s emergency order instructing Amtrak to make a series of immediate safety improvements. The basic idea is similar for both: that railroads should identify places where the speed limit approaching a curve is more than 20 mph faster than the speed limit on the curve itself.
Railroads would then be expected to rejigger existing safety systems — which may have been designed to help keep trains from plowing through signals — so they can instead stop trains from heading too fast into curves or bridges.
Within days of Amtrak’s derailment at Philadelphia’s Frankford Junction, and even before the FRA’s emergency order was formally issued, officials from the passenger railroad had made a technical adjustment along the northbound tracks that safety experts said could have prevented the deadly crash. Engineer Brandon Bostian brought the train into the curve at 106 mph, more than twice the 50 mph speed limit, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash.
At the time of the derailment, Amtrak had an automatic control system installed at Frankford Junction for southbound trains — but not northbound ones.
The Amtrak derailment remains under investigation. But speed has had deadly consequences in the recent past. In December 2013, a Metro-North commuter train hit a 30 mph curve in the Bronx going 82 mph, killing four people, federal railroad officials noted in Tuesday’s safety advisory. While safety has improved in recent years, the advisory said, “two fatal passenger accidents in the last 18 months in which serious overspeed events occurred” point to needed changes.
Where “viable,” existing automatic control systems should be modified to slow passenger rail trains before curves or bridges, the advisory said. If doing so would interfere with the broader, systemic improvements called for under Congress’s 2008 mandate for positive train control, the FRA “encourages railroads to take other operational actions, such as requiring additional qualified employees to occupy the controlling locomotive” at key locations to monitor speed limits. Or, the engineer could be required to communicate with another employee elsewhere on the train.
Kathryn Waters, executive vice president of member services with the American Public Transportation Association, said many passenger railroads have taken safety steps since the Metro-North crash. Some passenger railroads lack the automatic-braking systems that Amtrak was able to quickly modify at Frankford Junction, Waters said, and for those that do have them, fixes may turn out to be complex.
With the year-end deadline for more ambitious safety improvements approaching, “part of what’s going to have to be sifted out is when does [positive train control] take precedence, or when does the safety advisory request take precedence,” Waters said. “The FRA is going to have to help them decide which is the higher and better use of their time and resources.”
Federal railroad officials said they are still working through what actions to take against those railroads that miss the deadline.