Deadly Amtrak Crash Highlights Safety Challenges for Rail Associations

Monday’s Amtrak crash near Olympia, Washington, which occurred as the train was traveling at high speeds on a brand-new track, drew attention to challenging-to-implement rail industry regulations expected to take effect next year.

The derailment of an Amtrak train on a newly operational stretch of track in Washington state highlights a major challenge facing the railroad industry: A pending federal deadline on a safety standard—one that the industry may be challenged to reach.

On Monday, Amtrak Train 501 crashed near Tacoma, Washington, while traveling through a curve at 80 miles per hour, despite the speed limit being just 30 miles per hour on that stretch of track. The derailment of the train, carrying 77 people, killed three people and injured at least 100, some who were traveling on a busy highway directly below the crash site.

The crash was similar to a 2015 one on the East Coast, and it likewise drew attention to positive train control regulations that were passed in 2008 and currently face a mid-2018 implementation deadline. Despite that deadline, much of the railroad industry isn’t ready for the change, which, according to the Association of American Railroads, is the most expensive regulatory measure ever placed on the rail industry.

The technology, which effectively prevents a train from speeding, is largely supported by industry groups but is difficult to implement.

“The sophisticated and complicated PTC technology must account for a number of factors to measure the appropriate train stopping distance, including train information (weight, length); track composition (curvature, terrain); train speed and train authority (authorization to move across a stretch of track),” AAR explains on a policy page.

Some have questioned the long delay in getting the technology ready to go. Deborah Hersman, the head of the National Safety Council and a former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, argued to NPR that the technology, something the NTSB has pushed for since at least 1990, has faced many delays on the long road to implementation.

“This technology has been around since the 1970s. It’s nothing new. The NTSB, in fact, put it on their first most-wanted list back in 1990. So this is old technology,” she told the radio network on Tuesday. “But I would say the biggest stumbling block is the dollars that are required to upgrade technology on the railroads. That’s really World War II era technology that needs to be upgraded.”

Not every association-based observer of the industry saw the discussion of railroad technology or specific causes as the right one in the wake of the deadly crash. RPA President Jim Mathews made the case that “our focus right now should be on the victims, their families, and the first responders working the scene.”

(Washington State Patrol/Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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