By Dianne Feinstein
Originally published by the Los Angeles Daily News
The derailment of an Amtrak passenger train in Washington that killed three people and injured dozens more was a tragedy, but it may also have been preventable.
The segment of track where the accident occurred had the lifesaving Positive Train Control hardware installed, but not yet fully operational. If it had been, it’s possible the derailment wouldn’t have happened.
In fact, a number of deadly train crashes and derailments over the years may have been prevented if this lifesaving technology, known as PTC, had been deployed.
We know all too well the heartbreak that a deadly crash causes. In September 2008, an inattentive conductor of a Metrolink train missed a red light and entered a stretch of single track in Chatsworth going the wrong way.
That passenger train collided with a Union Pacific freight train, completely demolishing the first Metrolink commuter car. The accident killed 25 and injured more than 100 and NTSB found that PTC would have prevented this tragedy.
PTC is a crash-avoidance system that prevents train-to-train collisions and overspeed derailments by automatically stopping trains in dangerous situations.
This isn’t new technology. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending the installation of PTC since 1969 after a similar accident killed four and injured 43 in Connecticut. NTSB’s recommendation went largely ignored by the railroad industry for almost 40 years.
Since the NTSB first made its recommendation, 298 people have been killed and more than 6,700 injured in at least 148 accidents that could have been prevented by PTC.
It was in the wake of the Metrolink crash that Sen. Barbara Boxer and I pressed for a PTC mandate. We included it as a provision of the Rail Safety Improvement Act that passed the Democratic Congress and was signed by President Bush in October 2008, one month after the Metrolink crash.
The mandate required all 60,000 miles of passenger rail lines and freight rail lines that carry toxic materials to implement PTC by 2015.
Metrolink quickly got to work, and by 2015 it was the first railroad in the country to get PTC up and running on its entire system. Thanks in part to then Metrolink Board of Directors President Richard Katz, the railroad has become a national model to how PTC can be implemented.
Unfortunately, very few railroads worked at Metrolink’s pace, and Congress moved to pass a blanket five-year extension in 2015.
Several of my colleagues joined me in fighting such an extension, which we felt needlessly endangered lives. I met with company executives in an effort to convince them that a long delay was unacceptable.
We were able to negotiate the extension down to three years, plus additional two-year extensions on a case-by-case basis. This was still too long for me, but was better than pushing the deadline to 2020.
Even though railroads were given additional time under the law to complete installation, they still had a moral obligation to put this life-saving technology in place as quickly as possible because we all knew that more accidents would follow.
And they did. In the Bronx in December 2013, a Metro-North accident injured 61 and killed four. In Philadelphia in May 2015, an Amtrak accident injured more than 200 and killed eight.
All of these accidents could have been prevented if PTC had been installed more quickly after Congress passed the mandate in 2008.
Fortunately, railroads across the country are slowly beginning to make progress.
Amtrak has implemented PTC on two-thirds of its track across the country. The largest freight railroads are operating PTC on the more than 2,500 miles of track in California that they share with passenger rail.
But throughout California and the country, more work needs to be done installing hardware, testing software and making sure that each railroad’s systems are able to work together.
As we approach the 2018 deadline, the railroad industry and federal regulators must aggressively pursue full implementation on the more than 60,000 miles of track shared by freight and passenger rail. After waiting more than 45 years to implement the NTSB’s recommendation, further delays are completely unacceptable.
Millions of commuters travel daily on passenger rail, and any delay in implementing PTC puts their lives at risk.
We can’t wait any longer for this life-saving technology. Metrolink is proof positive that railroads can get PTC installed if they commit to a culture of safety and put passengers first.
PTC must be fully deployed as quickly as possible to prevent yet another tragedy.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat representing California.