The signalling control system intended for installation across the US rail network – but which is in use on under half of the country's infrastructure – would have prevented last week’s rail crash in South Carolina that claimed the lives of two people and injured more than 100, according to the US agency responsible for investigating major transport accidents.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the independent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said that had positive train control (PTC) – the GPS-controlled technology that tracks moving trains and slows them down to avoid collisions – been in place then the accident would have been avoided altogether.
After a series of delays with the installation of PTC, the deadline for which has been pushed back by Congress from its original 2015 date, the U.S. Department of Transportation has named the new deadline of December 31st 2018. However, it is not expected that the US rail industry will hit that target, with only around 24% of tracks owned by passenger railways – and 45% of freight – currently equipped with PTC.
The South Carolina crash happened just outside of the state capital of Columbia after an Amtrak train travelling to Miami from New York had collided with a stationary freight train. Early reports appear to indicate that the moving passengers train was on the wrong track after passing through a padlocked switch that forced it to take the section of track that led to the horrific collision. The two people that lost their lives in the collision both worked for Amtrak, the Washington DC-based train company that connects more than 500 destinations in 46 US states.
“For whatever reason, that switch was, as they say in the railroad industry, lined and locked,” said Sumwalt, who added that the key to the investigation was getting to the bottom of why it was in the incorrect position at all.
The latest announcement from Sumwalt, which was made at a press conference set up after the crash, came a matter of weeks following three other fatal collisions involving Amtrak trains. They happened in Washington State, Virginia and California, which led to the loss of three, one and one life, respectively. In Tacoma, Washington State, a speeding train plummeted off a bridge onto the road that it passed over after travelling too fast into a bend; in Crozet, Virginia, a train crashed into a vehicle at level crossing killing one of its occupants; and in Dixon, California, a man died after his car was struck and, according to reports, dragged half a mile down the tracks.
Illustrating the importance placed on the roll-out of PTC by the US government, the US transport secretary, Elaine Chao, voiced a strong reminder at the end of 2017 for the implementation of the train safety by the December 31st 2018 deadline. Appealing to 47 Class 1, intercity and state and local transit authorities, secretary Chao said “Safety is our top priority at the U.S. Department of Transportation. It is expected that your organization it taking all possible measures to ensure that it will meet the requirements specified by Congress…”
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Positive Train Control and the PTC deadline is a major feature of SafeRail 2018, Dedicated to safety and security in the industry SafeRail brings together leading experts to discuss the challenges faced by the industry, the latest solutions and best practice. 2018 speaker highlights include... Paul Renaud (Executive Director PTC Delivery, Canadian National Railway), Darrell Maxey (Deputy Chief Operating Officer (PTC & Engineering), Metrolink SCRRA), and Mark Hartong (Senior Scientist for PTC, Federal Railroad Administration). Learn more here.
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