Amtrak's new rail safety system hampered by costs, politics

The engine of an Amtrak train layes across several tracks as amergency responders search to find passengers injured during a train derailment in the Frankfort section of Philadelphia, PA, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (Bryan Woolston / For the Philadelphia Inquirer).

WASHINGTON - A safety system that could have prevented the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia is supposed to be in service across the country by the end of this year. But amid politics, budget wars, and technical woes, Congress is considering extending the deadline to 2020 - a dozen years after a California train crash killed 25 and prompted a law requiring installation of Positive Train Control by Dec. 31.

Amtrak says it can meet the original deadline on its Northeast Corridor. But its progress has been halting in the nearly seven years since the law was signed.

Positive Train Control equipment has been installed on most of its route south of Newark, N.J., but the system is in service on just 50 of the 226 miles between New York and Washington, according to memos sent to federal lawmakers last week. Amtrak has faced a long slog to acquire the radio spectrum that lets the system communicate with trains, and once that's done, testing is needed before Positive Train Control is put into use.

It was not active on the stretch of track in Port Richmond on which a fatal crash occurred last week, and scant progress has been made readying the system elsewhere in the U.S.

But the derailment of Amtrak 188 on Tuesday added a tragic burst of urgency to the debate over Positive Train Control and its rollout. Amtrak said Sunday that it was reviewing whether it can activate the system in more places where components have been installed in the Northeast Corridor.

The accident also emboldened rail advocates to urge more spending to speed infrastructure improvements.

The current system, with only patchy coverage by Positive Train Control, amounts to "a dangerous game of railway Russian roulette," said Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass).

"Again and again and again we see the consequences of a failure to invest," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said. "There's no question that PTC would have prevented this tragedy - it would have slowed the train, perhaps brought it to a halt."

Positive Train Control is the umbrella term for systems that can remotely send warnings to engineers and automatically slow or stop a train. It is a more sophisticated system than the decades-old Automatic Train Control, active on portions of Amtrak and set to be used more widely under an order from federal transportation officials Saturday.

When it comes to upgrading to PTC, though, some Republicans accuse Amtrak of wasting the money it has, and installation has been complicated by technical challenges.

"Getting to PTC eventually, it's where everybody wants to go, but it's not going to happen overnight," said Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.). "It's not as simple as it sounds. If it were, I think it would be done already."

He and others stood behind their call to push the PTC deadline to 2020.

A bill to do so, proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) and cosponsored by 11 Republicans and two Democrats, cleared Thune's Senate committee in March. The measure also allows for two more years of possible extensions.

Supporters stressed that a delay would not stall the rollout on the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak already is making progress. So is SEPTA, which has spent $300 million on the system, and which expects to meet the year-end deadline.

But they are exceptions.

For years, there have been warnings - including reports from the Department of Transportation in 2012 and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office in 2013 - that most rail lines would not meet the PTC deadline.

Commuter lines, which rely heavily on taxpayer funding, were hampered by tight budgets and worries that spending on PTC could undercut investing in other safety needs. In dense urban areas, including around Philadelphia, rail agencies had a hard time buying the radio spectrum needed for PTC.

Technical hurdles, including developing specialized equipment, added to the challenge, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Permits, environmental reviews, and restrictions on digging on Indian tribal lands have caused delays in rural areas.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), a cosponsor of the bill to extend the deadline, "supports implementing PTC as quickly as possible," a spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail, "but that strong support unfortunately won't change the fact that the current deadline for implementation simply can't be met nationwide."

Her measure is backed largely by lawmakers from more rural states where freight rail is extensive and passenger rail rare or nonexistent.

Rail advocates, largely Northeastern and California Democrats, whose constituents use commuter rail as a part of everyday life, have fought against a blanket extension, arguing that tougher rules would spur progress. Blumenthal accused rail lines of trying to avoid the expense of PTC.

But both sides agree the deadline is going to have to be extended. The question is by how long.

Of the 60,000 miles of freight rail covered by the law, about 11,400 are expected to have PTC in service by the end of the year, according to the railroad association.

On passenger lines, 8,400 miles of rail are required to be covered, but congressional aides say only a small fraction are on track to be done on time. Amtrak has covered a quarter of its goal for this year and says it will complete the rest by December.

Those pushing for faster implementation worry that a blanket, five-year extension will lead to further delays.

Blumenthal and other Democrats have proposed letting federal officials grant one-year extensions on a case-by-case basis, up to 2018. The goal is to force the railroads to show they are making an effort.

Many Democrats argue that Congress should focus on making it easier to implement PTC - helping rail lines acquire radio spectrum, spending more - rather than waiting longer.

"Failing to invest properly in infrastructure improvement is threatening the public's safety," Sen. Cory A. Booker (D., N.J.) said on the Senate floor.

Democrats were aghast when Republicans advanced a spending bill out of a House committee Wednesday - hours after the accident - that would cut Amtrak funding by $260 million.

But House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) called it "stupid" to link the derailment to Amtrak funding. "It's not about funding," he said. "The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds are there, no money's been cut from rail safety."

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman said Amtrak could have implemented PTC faster, though, if the railroad had received more money. A National Transportation Safety Board official said the new system would have prevented the accident.

Rail advocates say more delays could mean more accidents that could be prevented.

"Congress should not put Amtrak in the position of choosing between positive train control and fixing crumbling bridges," Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D., Pa.) told CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday. "We have to do both."

Earlier in the week he said lawmakers should remove obstacles to PTC. The accident in Philadelphia, he said, "was a pretty direct message."


Inquirer staff writer Paul Nussbaum contributed to this article.