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Amtrak Train Derailment and Positive Train Control

Colburn Law

What is Positive Train Control?

Positive Train Control is safety technology designed to prevent train accidents before they happen.  Positive Train Control is mandated by law and intended to:

  1. Prevent derailments caused by excessive speed.
  2. Prevent train-to-train collisions.
  3. Prevent a train from moving through an incorrectly positioned track switch.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration, PTC uses communication-based/processor-based train control technology that provides a system capable of reliably and functionally preventing overspeed derailment among other types of train accidents. Train derailment accidents are deadly and extremely dangerous. If you or a loved one was involved in the recent Amtrak train derailment, contact our Seattle train accident lawyers at Colburn Law.

Is Positive Train Control new technology?

Positive Train Control in its modern form, also referred to as automatic train control, has existed and been in use since the 1930s in Germany, Great Britain, and France.  Although the actual terminology “Positive Train Control” was not used by the Federal Railroad Administration (“FRA”) until 1994, the elements of PTC have been known to safety advocates, government officials, and the rail industry for years – in fact, decades.

A summarized history of automatic train control, including PTC, in the United States includes:

  • 1922: Interstate Commerce Commission (“ICC”) required installation of train control systems on rail systems that included passenger transportation.
  • 1924: Pursuant to the 1920 Transportation Act, the ICC instituted minimum safety standards requiring the installation of automatic train stop systems in the event that a train engineer failed to act appropriately, including failing to operate the train at a safe speed.
  • 1969: National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) recommended automatic train control systems similar to Positive Train Control. The NTSB is an independent government agency tasked with investigating civil transportation accidents, including train accidents.  The NTSB suggested this safety improvement in response to the multiple fatality train wreck in Darien, Connecticut that also injured 43 passengers.
  • 1990: The NTSB identified PTC on its Most Wanted List.  In 2015, NTSB reiterated the need for PTC on its Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements.  The NTSB stated, “Positive Train Control can stop many rail accidents before they happen.  … With PTC, the train stops anyway.  Without PTC, real-world results have been tragic.  PTC is a system of functional requirements for monitoring and controlling train movements to provide increased safety.  While the NTSB has called for a system like this for over 45 years, it still has not been fully implemented in our commuter, intercity, and freight trains.  Without it, everybody on a train is one human error away from an accident.”

Could Positive Train Control have prevented the Amtrak Cascades Train Crash?

The National Transportation Safety Board put it best, “Each death, each injury, and each accident that Positive Train Control could have prevented, testifies to the vital importance of implanting PTC now.”

Information and data currently available indicates that the Amtrak Cascades train that crashed in DuPont, Washington, on December 18, 2017, was traveling approximately 80 mph when it entered a 30-mph speed zone and began a steep curve to the left.  PTC was not being utilized when the Amtrak commuter train barreled into the left turn, jumped the tracks, and plummeted onto Interstate 5 resulting in multiple deaths and serious injuries.   Although the investigation into the cause of this tragedy is in its infancy, Positive Train Control — which is intended to prevent train derailments caused by excessive speed — would have been an additional safety layer that may have prevented this tragedy and saved lives.

In fact, Amtrak trains will not travel the stretch of rail where the Tacoma Amtrak train crash occurred until Positive Train Control is installed.