On an August evening in 1969, a Connecticut train wreck made history. A pair of passenger trains in Darien collided head-on, killing five people and injuring 35.
It was the first train wreck on record that could have been prevented by what now is known as positive train control, or PTC. Almost 50 years later, the system that might have saved the five people from death — and more than 300 people who have died in train wrecks since then — is in full operation by just four of the nation’s 41 railroads.
“In the course of 50 years we have investigated 150 PTC preventable accidents that have caused 303 fatalities and 6,800 injuries,” said Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. “I would have liked to have seen more progress, but at least we’re moving in the right direction.”
Complex in its design, PTC is simple in its intent. It keeps trains from running into each other. And it guarantees they round curves at a safe speed.
Fifty years ago, PTC was a concept in search of a name, and after the Darien wreck the NTSB suggested that the Federal Railroad Administration “study the feasibility of requiring a form of automatic train control.”
In more recent years, the list of PTC-preventable train wrecks includes:
• 2013: The Metro-North crash in the Bronx killed four people and injured 61.
• 2015: An Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia left eight passengers dead and injured 185.
• 2017: An Amtrak derailment near Dupont, Wash., killed three people and injured 62.
• 2018: Another Amtrak train rammed a stationary freight train in Cayce, S.C., killed two crew members and injured 116 others.
Faced with a multibillion-dollar undertaking, the railroads have lobbied Congress for relief on implementation. Railroads have contributed $60 million to incumbent members of Congress since 1990, according to federal records collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Now, after more than one congressional deadline has slipped away or been postponed, there are signs that by the end of 2020 much of the network will be in place. Progress has been made, with the Virginia Railway Express among the commuter lines fully operational, but other commuter lines have fallen behind. Commuter lines rely on passengers, not freight shipping rates, to raise revenue, and Congress has not fully subsidized PTC for their lines. And most — other than Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor — run on track owned by freight railroads with which their PTC systems may not be compatible yet.
It took 39 years and the worst train wreck in modern history before Congress was spurred into action. The head-on collision in 2008 between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in a Los Angeles neighborhood killed 25 people and left 102 injured.
The Metrolink engineer was swapping text messages with a friend, according to the investigation. He missed a signal in Los Angeles, and his train traveled into the path of an oncoming Union Pacific freight train. The trains, weighing 1,800 tons between them, slammed into each other head-on at 84 miles an hour. The Metrolink train was split open as if by a can opener.
By then, Congress already had been considering requiring some form of PTC, and the Los Angeles wreck catapulted the lawmakers into action. They passed legislation — signed into law by President George W. Bush a month later — that mandated PTC be installed on 58,000 of the nation’s 134,000 miles of railroad track, including those most heavily used by passenger rail lines.
The railroad industry objected, saying it would cost billions to install computers in locomotives, put in towers along the rail bed to communicate with those computers and to train workers to use them.
Once Republicans became the majority party in the Senate in 2015, the railroads were able to prevail on Congress to extend the PTC deadline by three years to 2018.
“This has been mandated by Congress, but there has been delay after delay,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in January. “Without PTC we are at risk for another PTC preventable accident.”
In addition to setting Dec. 31, 2018, as the new deadline, Congress also agreed that for railroads that made “substantial progress” toward meeting that deadline, the envelope would expand for another two years until the end of 2020.
The railroads warned Congress more than a year ago that most of them weren’t likely to make the 2018 deadline, and their prophecy was on the mark. Most of them made the required “substantial progress” but failed to have the PTC up and running.
Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement that railroads have invested $10.5 billion in PTC.
“The railroads’ commitment to safety is unwavering, and this industry is proud of its accomplishments in this immense undertaking,” Jefferies said.
An FRA spokesman said compliance with the December 2018 deadline is still under review and if “interim milestones” have not been met, “that would be a violation of the statutory mandate and punishable by a civil penalty.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Homendy acknowledged that some railroads didn’t meet the standards but suggested an alternative to fines.
“The FRA doesn’t have to fine them,” she said. “I’m not advocating for that, because I would rather see them use their money to implement PTC.”