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Amtrak to operate system that might have prevented crash

May 14, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — The deadly Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia appears to be yet another accident that didn’t have to happen.

It could have been avoided if a long-sought safety technology had been operating on its tracks and trains, according to information gathered by accident investigators.

On Thursday, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman said the nation’s passenger railroad will begin operating the technology, called positive train control, throughout its busy Northeast Corridor by the end of the year. The technology was installed on the tracks where the accident occurred, but it had not been turned on because further testing was needed, he said in an interview.

Seven years ago, Congress gave Amtrak and freight and commuter railroads until the end of this year to install the technology, on their trains and tracks. But few railroads are expected to meet the deadline. Now lawmakers are proposing to give railroads another five to seven years to get the task done.

The technology used by most railroads relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train position. Amtrak’s system uses transponders, which emit transmit information through radio signals. Both types of systems can automatically brake to prevent derailments due to excessive speed, collisions with other trains, trains entering track where maintenance is being done or going the wrong way because of a switching mistake. It’s all aimed at preventing human error, which is responsible for about 40 percent of train accidents.

A preliminary review of the Amtrak train’s event data recorder, or “black box,” shows it was traveling at 106 mph (170 kph) in an 80 mph (130 kph) zone just before it entered a curve where the speed limit is 50 mph (80 kph), according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The train’s engineer applied maximum braking power seconds before the crash, but it was too late.

At least eight people were killed and about 200 injured in the derailment.

“We are very keen on positive train control,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt. If such a system had been in operation, “this accident would not have occurred,” he told reporters.

The Philadelphia accident shares similarities with a 2013 derailment in New York on a November Sunday morning. A Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, killing four and injuring dozens of others. The train’s engineer had fallen asleep and failed to slow the train from 82 mph (130 kph) to the maximum authorized speed of 30 mph (50 kph) as it entered a curve. An NTSB investigation concluded that crash would also have been prevented by positive train control.

Not counting Tuesday’s derailment, the NTSB has investigated 29 passenger and freight train accidents that officials say could have been prevented by positive train control since 2004. Sixty-eight people died and more than 1,100 were injured in those crashes. The board has been urging installation of the technology, or its precursors, for 45 years.

In 2008, a month after a commuter train and a freight train collided in Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people, Congress passed a law requiring that positive train control be installed by Dec. 31, 2015. But railroads have long complained that complications will prevent them from meeting that deadline.

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