Thursday, Washington Representatives Derek Kilmer and Denny Heck and Washington’s Senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, led the Democratic members of Washington’s Congressional Delegation in asking the Acting Administrator of Federal Railroad Administration, Heath Hall, for a comprehensive update on the current status of Positive Train Control’s implementation. They also asked the Acting Administrator for the FRA’s plan for completing nationwide implementation by the December 2018 deadline set by Congress three years ago, and the cost of getting the job done on time.
The lawmakers represent the people from the region affected by last month’s derailment of the Amtrak Cascades 501 as it crossed a highway overpass above Interstate 5 near Dupont, Washington. The derailment killed three passengers and injured 62 passengers and crew members, and injured an additional 8 individuals in their vehicles on Interstate 5.
“In the aftermath of this tragic incident, it is clear that achieving nationwide implementation of Positive Train Control must be a top priority for the Federal Railroad Administration,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “With less than one year until the December 31, 2018 implementation deadline, it is imperative that FRA conduct vigorous oversight of the data provided by railroads and use all the tools within the FRA’s authority to ensure that all railroads complete full PTC implementation by the deadline. It is also essential that FRA make available additional funding to implement this technology.”
Positive Train Control is a technology designed to automatically slow trains traveling faster than a safe speed. While the National Transportation Safety Board has not yet issued a final report on the derailment, the NTSB’s preliminary report said, “in this accident, PTC would have notified the engineer of train 501 about the speed reduction for the curve; if the engineer did not take appropriate action to control the train’s speed, PTC would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction to stop the train.”
Since 1969, the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 148 railway accidents that it determined PTC could have prevented. These accidents resulted in 298 deaths and 6,763 injuries.
The Federal Railroad Administration is the government agency Congress tasked with ensuring railroads meet the 2018 PTC implementation deadline. This year’s deadline is the second chance for the railroads to implement PTC. In the leadup to the original 2015 deadline, the Government Accountability Office issued a report to Congress which found most railroads would not make the 2015 deadline for a variety of reasons including low funding and the complex challenge of integrating PTC technologies. The report, which was the basis for Congress’s decision to extend the implementation deadline to the end of this year, also said the FRA’s oversight efforts at the time were “not sufficient to oversee progress made by individual railroads and to hold them accountable for making progress in meeting the mandated PTC deadline.” Congress responded by enhancing the FRA’s mandate so it could adequately assist railroads and hold them accountable for reaching full implementation by 2018.
The full letter sent to the FRA is available here.