Rail safety deserves to be a higher priority

The letter Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao sent this week to the nation’s railroad executives urging them to meet a December 2018 deadline to install automatic braking technology known as Positive Train Control is a welcome development but not exactly a game-changer for U.S. passenger rail safety. If anything, the missive might be regarded as too little, too late given the circumstances of the Dec. 18 crash near Tacoma in which three passengers were killed as an Amtrak train derailed while going 80 miles per hour on a 30 mph curve. That stretch of track had PTC infrastructure; it just wasn’t operational yet.

Rail travel remains one of this country’s safest modes of transportation, but speeding and operator inattention are its Achilles heel. Not only did the spectacular rail-to-highway derailment in Washington state — on the inaugural run of a new route no less — capture the public’s attention, but it follows other high-profile crashes in recent years in which Positive Train Control could have made a difference. The most recent was the May 2015 crash in North Philadelphia in which an Amtrak train derailed while traveling 106 mph on a 50 mph-rated curve, killing eight passengers. The other was a December 2013 derailment of a Metro-North commuter train in the Bronx in which the train was traveling 82 mph in a curve with a speed limit of 30 mph.

Under such circumstances, a PTC system with trackside sensors communicating to onboard computers would have forced the speeding trains to apply the brakes and slow to safer speeds (or even stop in some cases) well before they entered the curves. It’s not exactly a new technology. The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended it in 1970, and it was mandated by Congress nearly 10 years ago in the wake of — unsurprisingly — an especially bad speed-related Southern California crash involving a commuter train and a freight train that killed more than two dozen people in 2008.

But here’s the problem: The freight rail industry, the dominant owner of the nation’s railroad tracks, has struggled to meet the deadline to install PTC. It was extended several years ago when it appeared some major freight lines would be forced to shut down. Cost, the lack of standardized equipment and the need to reserve radio spectrum space have all been blamed for the slow pace of development. So where have U.S. DOT and the Federal Railroad Administration been while the implementation of four-decade-old technology has taken most of a decade yet still falls short? Where is the accountability?

Granted, it’s clearly out of character for the Trump administration with its deregulatory mindset to enforce regulations, but few safety enhancements are more overdue than Positive Train Control. The nation’s failure to invest sufficiently in passenger rail travel is especially apparent when companies like Google and Uber appear to be on the cusp of autonomous vehicles on the roads, a far more challenging technological reach than merely tamping on the brakes of a moving train. This lack of adequate investment in rail travel is astounding considering its proven efficiency and environmental benefits. How anyone could be seriously considering investing in floating magnetic levitation trains in the U.S. when the country has yet to master more basic high-speed passenger rail seems astounding.

Whether PTC would have saved lives in the Washington state crash is immaterial. There have been plenty of rail accidents in which it obviously would have done the job. And as much as Secretary Chao’s letter is helpful, she should go further and warn freight carriers that she will be issuing no last-minute reprieves or extensions to carriers that can’t meet the current deadline. Those who worry they won’t meet the timetable can petition the White House and Congress for emergency financial aid to speed construction. If the Trump administration is serious about improving transportation infrastructure in 2018, as claimed, it’s not too great a leap for Washington to climb on board this effort, too. After all, President Donald Trump recently bragged about his role in making 2017 the safest year on record in commercial air travel. How much better if his administration could play a role in actually making it safer to travel on some mode of transportation?

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