Amtrak will install inward-facing video cameras on a majority of its Northeast Corridor trains by the end of this year, officials said Tuesday, another in a series of safety measures the rail company has taken since a deadly May 12 derailment that killed eight people and injured more than 200.
In a conference call with reporters, Amtrak president and chief executive Joseph Boardman said the cameras will allow railroad officials to monitor the actions of engineers while they are on the job. The footage will not be available in real time; it will have to be downloaded from the locomotive’s “black box” after the fact.
The announcement drew immediate praise from some lawmakers on Capitol Hill who said the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) should make the cameras mandatory on railroads nationwide.
“It has become crystal clear that inward-facing cameras — with the right privacy protections for employees — are a critical way to make our railroads safer,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “Cameras improve accident investigations, deter unsafe behavior and detect compliance with safety laws, which is why I have urged their installation as soon as possible.”
Boardman acknowledged that employee unions may not be eager to embrace the idea. “I don’t think they’re jumping up with joy to have them in there,” he said.
[Federal officials issue emergency order for Amtrak safety fixes]
But he added, “The technology is there, and I’m using the technology to ensure better safety.”
Members of the union that represents Amtrak engineers said they were doubtful the cameras would make trains safer. “Engineers who are out there working don’t see why that makes the railroad safer,” said Fritz Edler, chair of the local committee of adjustment for Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 482.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the May 12 derailment, has long recommended the cameras be installed, Boardman noted.
Boardman said Amtrak had been working with the FRA’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee on a plan to install the cameras but concluded that there was no reason to delay.
He estimated it will cost roughly $1.4 million to install the cameras by the end of the year in the system’s newest ACS-64 locomotives, which travel the Northeast Corridor. Cameras will then be installed on the remainder of Amtrak’s fleet. In total, it will cost roughly $6 million to install the cameras in all of the system’s locomotives.
“I am reassured to hear that Amtrak has heeded the call to install inward cameras in the cabs of their trains,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called for the installation of the cameras in 2013 following a Metro-North passenger-train derailment in New York that killed four people and injured more than 70.
“These cameras will make a significant difference for the safety of rail passengers, and will provide additional information that can be used to improve safety and prevent future tragedies,” Schumer said in a statement.
According to federal investigators, on the night of May 12, Amtrak Train 188 sped up from 70 mph to more than 100 mph in less than a minute before it derailed and was still moving about 102 mph when it left the tracks at a sharp curve.
While an automatic braking system that could have prevented such a derailment was installed on the southbound portion of the track, it had not been installed on the northbound section of track where Train 188 derailed.
Amtrak has since installed the system at the crash site. In addition, the company is working with the FRA to determine which other curved sections on the route between Washington and Boston need to be upgraded. Amtrak has declined to identify which curves will get automatic speed control fixes like the one made for northbound trains at Philadelphia’s Frankford Junction within days of the May 12 crash.
[FBI joins Amtrak investigation]
A more comprehensive speed control system is expected to be in operation by year’s end.
Federal officials last week gave Amtrak a five-day deadline to submit a list of all curves where the speed limit for approaching trains is more than 20 mph greater than the speed limit for the curve. The emergency order also gave Amtrak 20 days to come up with an “action plan” for putting in place speed “warning and enforcement” tools on those curves.
If making those changes would slow broader train control improvements ahead of a year-end congressional deadline, or “are not otherwise feasible,” Amtrak can offer alternatives to ensure trains are not running too fast, according to the order.
Southbound trains had been provided an automatic breaking backstop in the early 1990s following a major derailment in Boston. That is because the speed limit headed toward that curve from the north was significantly higher than the limit coming from the south, Amtrak officials have said.
Amtrak said it is working with federal officials on “proposed mitigations” at a number of curves. Even so, Amtrak officials maintained that speeding is not a problem for the passenger railroad.
[Amtrak is ordered to make fixes at dangerous curves. ]
Still, Amtrak said it is increasing lower-tech speed checks, including through the use of radar guns.
In addition to more frequent speed checks, federal officials said Amtrak also intends to rely on more “locomotive event recorder downloads” to check on engineers.
“This device allows us to monitor performance and handling of the train,” Amtrak officials said. “We would review information in order to determine appropriate action when necessary.”
Amtrak also said its supervisors will increase their “observations of employee compliance or non-compliance” with operating procedures and rules for its engineers. And it intends “to hold listening sessions with its employees to learn about, and address, any additional safety concerns,” according to federal railroad officials.
Amtrak declined to comment directly on the suggestion from federal officials that it could require its engineers to communicate by radio to a second employee before reaching major slowdown points. That employee could throw the emergency break if the engineer did not slow down, federal officials said. Amtrak responded only that “we are in the process of developing an action plan to comply” with the emergency order.
With Tuesday’s announcement, Boardman reiterated his pledge to restore confidence in the system.
“We are going to do whatever we have to do to improve the safety and to make sure that people have confidence in Amtrak,” he said. “This is a safe railroad, and people should feel safe when riding these trains.”