The initial facts of Monday’s train derailment in Washington state are that three people died when the Amtrak train failed to slow to the 30-mph speed reduction and left the track at 80 mph.
But questions abound: Why didn’t the engineer slow the train to the required 30 mph? Did he lose situational awareness? If so, why? Was it a lack of training? And why is it taking so long to deploy positive train control (PTC), which could have prevented this and many other accidents?
“My initial reaction was that it’s completely tragic and never should have happened,” said John Risch, national legislative director of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Transportation Division. “Did the guy know the curve was coming up?
It’s not likely the engineer just blew off the 30-mph speed reduction. He either was distracted, didn’t know it was coming or perhaps there was a mechanical issue. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation will take months. The NTSB will have access to onboard cameras and voice recorders.
There was a report of another person, other than the engineer and conductor, in the cab at the time of the crash and the NTSB will look to determine if there was someone else in the cab and what distractions there were as a result.
Whatever the cause, the accident highlights issues that have been raised repeatedly in recent years. One issue is training. Every track has unique characteristics, Risch said. It can take a while to become familiar with a track, and part of training is familiarization trips on each track.
“We’ve been struggling with the industry about the number of familiarization trips people should go on before going out on their own,” Risch said. “Oftentimes railroads will allow you one, two maybe three trips and say, ‘Man, you’re good to go,’ when a guy doesn’t feel comfortable.”
Also, in this case, the engineer was reportedly training a conductor, not an ideal scenario, since neither was really familiar with the route and equipment. Risch said that during the trip, the conductor should have certain responsibilities, such as telling the engineer of an upcoming speed reduction.
“The key is the engineer should not be training a conductor, especially on a brand-new run,” Risch said. “He should have a skilled conductor with him interacting with him, reminding him of the 30-mph curve, reminding him of every signal. There should be constant interaction.”
Keith Millhouse, rail expert and consultant, wondered about the oversight over this portion of the Amtrak route. “I couldn’t find any board or oversight group. Is this just overseen by some government employees working at the Department of Transportation?”
Risch said the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requires engineers and conductors to be certified, but each individual railroad develops its own certification plan, and the FRA will address it if they have concerns.
Risch said training is lacking not just in the number of familiarization trips. “You can be trained in three weeks to be a conductor and three months later, be a locomotive engineer out there by yourself,” he said. “The training requirement is not substantial enough. Our guys need better training and more familiarization trips, so they feel more comfortable about the line.”
But whatever the reason the train wasn’t slowed, the accident could have been averted with Positive Train Control. PTC is a safety redundancy system. It’s a computerized system that is used to identify the location of the train, speed and any restrictions upcoming on the track such as a speed limit reduction or a stop order. If a crew member does not act to slow the train by a certain point, the train’s brakes are automatically applied.
PTC was mandated by Congress in 2008. Initially the deadline for installation was the end of 2015, but that was extended to the end of 2018.
“To me, this was eerily similar to the situation in Philadelphia in 2015,” [an Amtrak crash that killed eight, where the train was going 105 mph into a 50-mph curve and the NTSB determined the engineer had lost situational awareness because of kids throwing rocks on the track] Millhouse said.
“The thing that jumps out at me when I see an over-speeding situation is that PTC would have prevented it, but unfortunately, many areas of the country and many systems have lagged in the implementation of the technology.”
It’s expensive and the technology is complicated but would have prevented this accident. “People knew the deadline, so it begs the question, why not install it on a new system like this one that you do not have in place and is not operational?” said Millhouse. “That would be the perfect time, when you’re doing all the new track and signaling and the like.”
Bob Chipkevich, a former director of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations for NTSB, said PTC was designed for this type of event. “I’ve testified before Congress about the need for PTC and the NTSB has investigated many accidents that could have been prevented with Positive Train Control,” he said.