What is positive train control, and could it have prevented the Amtrak crash?

Published 9:22 AM EST, Mon February 5, 2018

Story highlights

Safety advocates have pushed for PTC for decades, but efforts have stalled over its cost

Railroad association: More than $11.5 billion has been spent so far on positive train control

(CNN) —  

Once again, a deadly train crash may have been prevented had a well-known piece of technology been implemented.

Positive train control, or PTC, can automatically slow down and stop a train if it senses the locomotive is going too fast or could get into an accident. The Federal Railroad Administration has called the system the “single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

Yet the Amtrak train that crashed into a stationary freight train early Sunday morning didn’t have PTC, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said.

Had PTC been in place, the catastrophe in South Carolina may have been prevented, chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

The crash, which killed two Amtrak employees, raises familiar questions about what PTC is and why it’s still not implemented across the country.

How does PTC work?

It’s a system that combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or speeding.

“We consider it an angel on our shoulders out there on the track, and it’s our backup and our safety net,” said John Hyatt, a former railroad engineer.

PTC was designed to prevent the human errors behind about 40% of train accidents by ensuring that it’s being operated in accordance with signals, speed limits or other rules, rail safety experts say. It’s an integrated system using tracks and train.

For example, if a train engineer doesn’t see a curve coming or a spot where the train is supposed to slow down, signals are sent to the train and “it will begin applying the brakes on the train to get it down to that speed which is required, or stopping the train,” Hyatt told CNN.

The NTSB has recommended the use of PTC for decades.

Why wasn’t PTC activated?

Sumwalt said he did not know why PTC was not implemented on the train that crashed Sunday in South Carolina.

The disaster stirred memories of a fatal crash in Washington state two months ago. PTC was installed on the segment of tracks where the Amtrak Cascades 501 derailed, but it wasn’t operational yet, said Geoff Patrick, spokesman for Sound Transit, which owns the tracks where the derailment occurred.

That December derailment killed at least three people and injured more than 100 others on a new route between Seattle and Portland, Oregon. The train was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, a National Transportation Safety Board member said.

The technology needs to be installed in trains as well the tracks, because a computer system knits both the car and tracks together, Patrick said. The target date for having the PTC up and running for the segment of the track in the December crash had been the second quarter of 2018.

Amtrak has equipped 71% of its locomotives and 67% of its tracks with PTC, according to Federal Railroad Administration data from the third quarter of 2017.

Why isn’t PTC mandated throughout US?

Railroad companies have until the end of 2018 and possibly two more years afterward to implement PTC.

Advocacy for PTC has gone on for decades, but the railroad industry has opposed PTC because of its high cost and technological issues.

In response to a 2008 head-on collision that killed 25 people near Los Angeles, Congress passed a law ordering the nation’s railroads adopt PTC by December 2015. But as 2015 came to a close, several railroad companies threatened to shut down services unless Congress gave them more time.

So Congress extended the deadline, giving companies until December 31, 2018, with extensions up to 2020 if certain requirements are met.

“The reason why they’ve been given so many extensions has been money,” said Mary Schiavo, a CNN analyst and a former Department of Transportation inspector general. “It is expensive to put it on tracks all over the country.”

The Association of American Railroads estimated that as of March 2017, freight railroads had spent $8 billion and passenger railroads $3.5 billion to meet the PTC mandate.

Could PTC have prevented this derailment?

NTSB board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr has noted that PTC doesn’t guarantee 100% safety.

“We should remember that PTC can’t prevent every accident,” she said. “It does prevent certain types of derailments, overspeed accidents as well as incursions into work zones, for example.”

PTC can’t prevent accidents if there’s trespassing onto the tracks or if a car moves through a railroad crossing, according to the Association of American Railroads.

What other crashes may have been averted?

The NTSB has said PTC technology could have prevented numerous railroad accidents that involved human error.

The agency points to the 2013 Metro-North commuter train derailment in the Bronx, New York, in which four people were killed and dozens injured. The engineer fell asleep and failed to slow the train from more than 82 mph to the maximum authorized speed of 30 mph as it entered a curve, the NTSB said.

In 2015, an Amtrak train in Philadelphia derailed after it hit a curve at 106 mph in a 80-mph zone. The wreck killed eight people and injured more than 200 others. Sumwalt said then that the derailment would not have happened if PTC had been in place.

CNN’s Javier de Diego, Natasha Chen, Catherine E. Shoichet and Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.