The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) lead investigator of the Amtrak commuter train crash that killed at least eight people in Philadelphia on Tuesday night said the deadly derailment was probably preventable.
NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters at a Wednesday news conference that positive train control (PTC), a GPS-based automated speed control and override system on the agency’s wish list for decades and mandated by an act of Congress, but whose implementation has been resisted and delayed by powerful corporate interests and leading Republican lawmakers, would have likely prevented the train from flying off the rails by forcing it to stay below the speed limit. Investigators have determined the Amtrak 188 train was traveling at 106mph (171km/h) in a 50mph (80km/h) curve zone.
“Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” asserted Sumwalt, who was appointed NTSB board vice chairman by former President George W. Bush. “That type of system is designed to enforce the civil speed to keep the train below its maximum speed. So we have called for positive train control for many, many years. It’s on our most-wanted list.”
In an interview with CBS News, Sumwalt reiterated that “positive train control is exactly what would have prevented this crash.”
After a Metrolink train carrying 225 passengers crashed north of Los Angeles on September 12, 2008 due to a texting engineer, killing 25 people and injuring 135 others, Congress passed, and President Bush signed into law, the Railway Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The law mandated installation and implementation of PTC on Class I railroads by December 31, 2015.
PTC, forms of which have been in use in Europe for many decades, has been installed on parts of the heavily-traveled Northeast Corridor, including between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut, New Brunswick to Trenton in New Jersey, and a 30-mile (48km) stretch in eastern Maryland.
This is not the first time NTSB officials have urged speedy implementation of PTC. NTSB has said the technology could likely have prevented the December 2013 derailment of a Metro-North commuter train in the Bronx, which killed four people and injured 63 more, as well as at least 21 other train accidents that have killed more than 50 people and injured more than 1,000 others since 2001.
But installing PTC is expensive, with the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry lobby group representing Amtrak and freight railroads, estimating the total cost at $10 billion. PTC also requires the development and adoption of new technologies, and the US railroad industry has aggressively resisted the implementation of the life-saving safety upgrade. Leading the resistance are AAR and the American Public Transportation Association, which represents commuter rail systems.
Railroad interests have spent enormous sums lobbying lawmakers to weaken and delay rail safety measures, including PTC. According to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the railroad industry spent $73.4 million on lobbying in 2009 and 2010, and another $8.75 million in the first quarter of 2011. The industry has also hired dozens of powerful lobbyists to push its agenda in Washington, DC.
Recently, as a wave of oil train accidents—including a crash and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Québec on July 6, 2013—have made headlines across North America, “Big Rail” has actively resisted proactive, life-saving safety measures due to cost concerns. Rail interests are pushing the Obama administration to drop a requirement that oil trains, which critics call “bomb trains,” adopt an advanced braking system, because they claim implementation “would not have significant safety benefits” and “would be extremely costly.”
The rail industry has an ally in “Big Oil,” with the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and natural gas lobby, filing a lawsuit against the Obama administration on Monday challenging the timeline for implementing safety upgrades on thousands of tank cars.
The rail industry is getting plenty of help from Congress. In March, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to extend the deadline for implementing PTC until at least 2020, a move with broad bipartisan support. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is leading Republican efforts to relax PTC requirements, including extending the PTC implementation deadline by three years and allowing trains to use ‘non-technological’ safety systems that don’t automatically correct the human errors responsible for 40 percent of train accidents.
Rep. Mica, who is one of the biggest beneficiaries of rail industry campaign contributions, receiving $182,298 since 2008, according to CREW, said he opposes life-saving upgrades because his priority is to “protect against overly-burdensome regulations and red tape,” a central tenet of conservative ideology.
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), who chairs the House railroads subcommittee, has also been an outspoken critic of PTC, accusing the government of “regulatory overreach.” CREW named “Big Rail” as the biggest contributing industry to Shuster’s 2008 and 2010 election campaigns, with $165,800 donated, a powerful incentive to resist safety improvements.
Many Democrats in Congress are vehemently opposed to delaying PTC implementation. Speaking of Tuesday’s derailment, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called the accident “Exhibit A for ending the delays and getting positive train control in place.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), reacting to the 2008 Metrolink tragedy, said failure to install PTC would amount to “criminal negligence.”
But the bodies had not yet been fully recovered from the Philadelphia crash site when the Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to slash Amtrak funding by 20 percent, from about $1.4 billion last year to $1.14 billion. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee twice rejected amendments that included $1.3 billion in new federal funding for Amtrak, arguing their hands are tied by budget cuts and that the publicly-funded rail service wastes money.
GOP lawmakers have long pushed for the privatization of Amtrak. Republicans argue privatization would improve service, reduce costs and encourage innovation that could help the outmoded US railway system catch up with cutting-edge high-speed rail systems in Europe and Japan.
In a heated House floor exchange, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) drew a harsh rebuke from a Republican colleague when he linked Tuesday’s deadly disaster to the issue of infrastructure funding. Israel said GOP lawmakers should use the Amtrak tragedy “as an opportunity to do the right thing, instead of sticking to their ideology” of spending cuts and privatization.
“You have no idea what caused this accident,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) shot back. “Don’t use this tragedy in that way, it was beneath you.”
Hours later, Sumwalt, leading the NTSB investigation of the Philadelphia crash, said PTC would have likely prevented the disaster.
“Whether there had been an accident last night or not it would have been the right thing to do to restore this funding to Amtrak,” argued Rep. Chellie Pingree, (D-ME) on the House floor. “Last year over 800 people were killed in rail accidents…not supporting our infrastructure at the level we know we should is a total dereliction of our duty.”
In addition to PTC, other safety improvements that could help avert disasters include posting a second crew member in train operator cabs in a bid to reduce the possibility of human error, a move supported by prominent train accident attorney Robert L. Pottroff, who argues that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the US Department of Transportation agency responsible for promulgating and enforcing rail safety regulations, has a history of close ties with the very industry it is meant to regulate. Rail industry lobbyists counter that employing a second person in train operator cabs—as has also been proposed for freight trains—would be prohibitively expensive.
“These are mile-long trains carrying every kind of hazardous material you can think of through communities,” Jen Wallis, who works for BNSF Railway Co., the second-largest freight railroad network in North America, and who founded a caucus with members from 13 different railroad unions, told NBC News. “Why would you compromise the safe passage of these trains for profit?”
The latest railway disaster has again highlighted the overall deterioration of America’s infrastructure, which has seen bridge collapses, power grid failures, outdated airports and other serious problems increase in recent years. The Obama administration and congressional Democrats support increased infrastructure spending, including a plan to spend one dollar on infrastructure for every dollar spent on the military, whose annual budget is currently around half a trillion dollars, more than the combined defense budgets of all US adversaries.
“There’s been a concerted effort by Republicans to stand in front of those kinds of advancements,” Josh Earnest, spokesman for President Barack Obama, told reporters at Wednesday’s White House press briefing. “The president has been very disappointed in that kind of reaction from the Republican opposition for us to really do something good for the economy and for people across the country. This is why you see the funding increase the president’s proposed in his own budget.”
The US rail system lags far behind those of other developed nations. In Europe, trains in countries including Germany, France, Italy and Spain often average speeds of 150mph (240km/h) or more. The AGV Italo, built with 98 percent recyclable components, has a top speed of 357mph (575km/h) and an operational speed of 224mph (360km/h). In Japan, a magnetic levitation (maglev) train recently broke its own world top speed record of 374mph (603 km/h) in a test run near Mt. Fuji. The famed shinkansen, or bullet train, reaches speeds of 199mph (320km/h) on routes connecting major Japanese cities.
Meanwhile, Acela, Amtrak’s ‘high speed’ train that connects the northeastern megalopolis stretching from Boston to Washington, DC, is only able to reach its top speed of 150mph (240km/h) for a short stretch of about 30 miles (48 km) near Cranston, Rhode Island. Amtrak’s average speed along the Northeast Corridor? A sluggish 68mph (109km/h).
“These trains have to be thought of as a national asset,” Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter told the New York Times. “Amtrak is a political whipping boy for Congress. But how much is it going to take to wake up Congress that this stuff has to be invested in? It is aging, it is not properly maintained.”