Three people might be alive today if Amtrak had installed a system known as Positive Train Control (PTC). They were riding on the Washington Amtrak train last week as it rounded a curve at too high a speed, derailed, and tumbled off a highway overpass just south of Seattle.
PTC takes some of the human error out of high-speed rail travel. The technology automatically slows and even stops trains when they’re running at unsafe speeds or coming upon hazards like work sites. The system has been around for decades but it wasn’t until 2008 that Congress required all commuter rail lines to install PTC by 2015. But then it extended the deadline to December 2018 and, for some rail lines, may still extend the deadline to December 2020.
There’s just no good reason for any more delays of an override system that can save lives. Railroads have known for almost a decade that they’d have to upgrade their safety equipment. That’s plenty of time.
Last week’s accident in Washington was eerily similar to Philadelphia’s own May 2015 accident in which an Amtrak train was traveling 106 mph on a curve with a 50-mph speed limit and derailed. Eight people died. PTC could have slowed down that train to a safe speed and saved them too.
Fortunately, Amtrak has finished installing PTC in the Northeast Corridor. SEPTA has the system too.
But NJ Transit does not, and the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates train lines, is concerned that NJ Transit won’t have the system in place by the December 2018 deadline.
In April, the FRA cited NJ Transit for 15 violations including failure to have a plan to install PTC on its 326 miles of track. The federal agency noted that it found the same problems with NJ Transit in a 2014 audit, a sign that NJ Transit just wasn’t taking the FRA seriously.
By the fall, though, NJ Transit had a plan to install PTC; it’s anyone’s guess if it sticks to it. The agency has been on a down-bound train for years.
Gov. Christie raided $3.4 billion from the agency’s capital budget to keep from raising taxes. His reckless policies caused enough fiscal distress that NJ Transit’s rail service became unreliable and the agency imposed two fare hikes on passengers during his tenure, which mercifully ends in January.
NJ Transit officials insist that the PTC system will be installed by the end of next year. But doubts raised by the federal overseer make it clear that Gov.-elect Phil Murphy should cast a wary eye on NJ Transit, which carries over 380,000 increasingly annoyed rail passengers a day.
Murphy knows full well that without mass transit, a densely populated state like New Jersey stops dead. He cannot allow NJ Transit to deteriorate any further or miss the 2018 PTC deadline even if the agency argues for more time.
There wasn’t more time for the three people who died in Washington just last week. Murphy is smart enough to know that, too.