Lethal delays in safer train technology

Cars from an Amtrak train spilled onto Interstate 5 below alongside smashed vehicles after Monday’s derailment.
Cars from an Amtrak train spilled onto Interstate 5 below alongside smashed vehicles after Monday’s derailment.(Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

ANOTHER FATAL TRAIN CRASH, another round of troubling questions about whether long-overdue safety upgrades might have stopped a gruesome tragedy. It’s too soon to know whether the accident near Seattle, caused by a train speeding 50 miles per hour over its speed limit, could have been prevented with state-of-the-art technology called positive train control. But according to Amtrak, the locomotive involved in the incident lacked the safety system that was originally required to be in place nationally by December 2015.

Congress ordered railroads to install positive train control back in 2008, after a collision in California that killed 25 people. The GPS-based system reduces the chances of human error causing accidents, by automatically slowing trains if they exceed their speed limits or stopping them to prevent head-on collisions. To work, the technology needs to be installed on both the tracks and locomotives.


Yet instead of complying with the deadline, railroads procrastinated, and Americans continued to die in preventable accidents. In 2013, an engineer on a Metro-North train fell asleep, failed to slow down at a curve in the Bronx, and caused an accident that killed four. In 2015, eight people aboard an Amtrak train in Philadelphia died when an engineer sped into a curve. Safety officials have said that both tragedies could have been prevented if positive train control systems had been in operation.

Those crashes focused public attention on the railroads’ foot-dragging. Still, they were able to wheedle an extension out of Congress, pushing the deadlines back to 2018 or 2020. The companies are making slow progress, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s statistics. CSX, the freight giant that operates in parts of Massachusetts, has positive train control operating on only 36 percent of its mileage. On Union Pacific, the nation’s largest railroad by miles, the figure is 34 percent.


On commuter rail routes with passenger traffic, speeding up the transition is especially crucial. According to the federal statistics, the public agencies furthest along are Philadelphia’s, where 100 percent of commuter rail track miles have operating positive train control, and LA’s, where the figure is 99 percent. It’s probably no coincidence that both cities had experienced the trauma of preventable train fatalities.

In Massachusetts, the picture is mixed. According to the FRA, all MBTA locomotives have been equipped with positive train control — but none of its track has. The agency is partway through a project to install positive train control hardware on its commuter rail lines, work that has required weekend closures of some routes, but it may not be until 2020 that the system is operational. Earlier this month, the agency closed on loans from the federal government that should allow the T to complete the work.

Train travel, overall, is safe — far safer than driving. But every year that passes without full implementation of positive train control leaves Americans at needless risk.