Delays Come with a Death Toll on U.S. Railways

The fatal Amtrak crash on Washington may have been preventable. The investigation so far has revealed two facts: First, the train was traveling at 80 miles per hour on a curve rated for 30 miles an hour. Excessive speed can be a contributing factor in derailments on curves, because neither the train nor the tracks can withstand the strain of trying to turn several hundred tons of locomotive and passenger cars at high speed.

Second, the train’s emergency brake system turned on as the crash occurred, suggesting that the conductor may not have been aware that the train was moving too fast. Investigators are questioning whether the conductor was distracted by a trainee conductor who was in the cab, part of a standard training regimen for new Amtrak routes.

Technology exists that may have prevented this railroad accident, and the resulting injuries and loss of life. That technology is in place along the Seattle to Portland route where the crash occurred, but it had not been turned on yet, thanks to an ongoing series of delays that have allowed railroad operators to skirt Federal requirements, with the Federal Government acting as enablers.

Positive Train Control

In September 2008, a Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight train near Chatsworth in Los Angeles. Twenty-five people were killed and 135 injured when the engineer, distracted by text messages, ignored a red light and put the train on a collision course with the freight train. This led the United States Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which requires and funds the development of Positive Train Control Technology (PTC).

PTC uses global positioning system (GPS), track ratings and measurements of the direction and speed of trains as an “eye in the sky” to prevent collisions and derailments. Already in use along the Acela Amtrak line from Boston to Washington, this system can take control of a train when it detects excessive speeds or trains on a path toward collision.

Congress mandated that the system be installed and functional by 2015. In October of that year, Congress waived implementation until December 2018. Railroad operators, including the MBTA in Massachusetts, are now petitioning for a further delay until 2020 from the Federal Railway Administration (FRA), which is requiring “some progress” from applicants before it issues waivers.

Safety, Liability and Inertia

Just as it is difficult to get a passenger train up to speed from a stop, legislative inertia is preventing PTC from saving lives. The original seven-year deadline for implementation should have been more than adequate.

Data from the FRA shows that train accidents rose in each of the last two years, with 1,767 reported through November 29, 2017 (prior to the Washington State Amtrak accident), an increase of 7.6^% compared with 2016 and 9.20% compared with 2014. Fatalities also increased, from 82 in 2014 to 133 in 2017, a gain of nearly 63%.

Many of these fatalities involve people trespassing on train tracks, but around a third of them involve accidents at road crossings. Fatalities from derailments have declined since 2014, with 14 reported through November 29, 2017, down from 18 in 2016 and 24 in 2014. That number will rise with the inclusion of the Washington Amtrak fatalities.

Train travel in the United States is generally safe for passengers, and the lack of high-profile accidents provides cover for Federal officials and railroad operators who want to delay costly safety improvements. But those realities offer no comfort to those who suffered injuries or lost loved ones in Washington State, or in the 2015 Philadelphia derailment that killed 8 and injured more than 200, another accident that may have been prevented by PTC.

Each day that passes without PTC is a day that puts passengers at risk. Here in Massachusetts, only 10% of passenger rail lines have PTC, which is currently confined to the Acela tracks running between South Station and the Rhode Island border.

It is well past time for legislators to act and to set meaningful, enforceable deadlines for full PTC implementation in the United States.

Sheff Law has extensive experience in litigating injuries and deaths from railroad accidents. We provide every client with a team of personal injury lawyers who leverage their individual expertise to provide superior communication and support during the legal process, and who have a history of delivering proven results in settlements. Contact us online for a free case evaluation, or call us at 1-888-423-4477.

Sheff Law logo

“Operator Error” Cited in Cedar Grove MBTA Crash that Injured 17
Dangerous Toys to Avoid in the 2017 Holiday Season