Amtrak 501 Derailment and Positive Train Control

Amtrak 501 Derailment and Positive Train Control

[Updated 12/19/17] Excessive speed details are emerging after the Amtrak 501 train derailment near Olympia, Washington Monday. And it’s sparked a flurry of articles about whether Positive Train Control technology could have prevented the wreck.

The derailment at an overpass trestle caused fatalities, though the number is unclear. Multiple injuries are reported from the accident.

Amtrak said the train was carrying some 80 passengers and seven crew members. It was traveling at about 80 miles per hour in a 30-mile zone before it went off a trestle overpass and two of the cars hit Intestate 5, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Monday night.

As the NTSB sets up for its investigation, one of the big questions likely to come up is whether Positive Train Control technology could have slowed the train as it approached the sharp angle it had to negotiate as it traversed the trestle. In short, PTC deploys GPS networks and communication between the train to calculate whether an emergency stop or slowdown should kick in.

The train was on its first run between Seattle and Portland after a multi-million upgrade that included a faster transit time on the line. Instead, disaster struck.

“The new route improvement also included new locomotives and a positive train control system, which aims to help prevent crashes,” according to a Washington DOT press release. But the release suggests the PTC system was likely not online.

“This ‘next generation’ rail equipment features safety upgrades, including on-board positive train control system, which will automatically stop the train when there are dangerous situations on the rails, once the system is activated corridor-wide in 2018.”

The Philadelphia Amtrak derailment in 2015 is one such example of a train going too fast through a curved section of track without PTC systems in place.

The basic details, which the New York Times reported:

“Brandon Bostian was driving a Washington-to-New York train on May 12, 2015, when he accelerated to a speed of 106 miles per hour as the train entered a curved section of track whose designated speed was less than half that. The train careered off the track in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia.

In addition to the [eight] deaths, more than 200 people were injured.”

Had PTC been operational on the train, it would have automatically slowed or even stopped the train before it hit that curve at that speed, the NTSB’s report on the accident found.

Amtrak has said in a release that it expects to bring Positive Train Control technology online on its entire Northeast Corridor line by the end of 2018.

I’m checking into the status of the release that says Amtrak activated PTC on its New York-to-Washington, D.C., route, “completing installation on most Amtrak-owned infrastructure on the Northeast Corridor.” Installation and activation are two very  different things.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 called for the PTC installment on most of the nation’s rails. But in late 2015, according to the Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), “Congress extended the deadline by at least three years to December 31, 2018, with the possibility for two additional years if certain requirements are met.”

So, in short, railroads have until 2020, full stop, to get the PTC technology installed if they fall short of the 2018 deadline.

The reality is that the PTC often has to grapple with centuries-old rail systems. Even with upgrades such as new tracks and cars, the systems that integrate the trains often run on top of legacy technology.

Meanwhile, on a day that the WSDOT invited reporters to cover the inaugural trip of the Amtrak 501 as a public relations event, they ended up reporting on a terrible accident. reports:

“Alex Rozier, a reporter with KING-TV in Seattle was on the first train to leave on the new route, but got off before the crash, he said on Twitter. The DOT was handing out landyards to passengers to commemorate the launch.”

[Officials have updated the death toll noted in this Twitter video to three deaths.]


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