Train derailment kills three in Washington

Excessive speed has been named a primary factor in a Dec. 18 Amtrak train derailment south of Seattle, Washington. Train 501 approached a 30-mph curve at 80 mph, well above the safety limits of the turn. A total of 13 cars derailed in the accident, with some dangling over Interstate 5 from a bridge. Other cars jumped clean off the tracks into the freeway below, or rolled down a nearby hill.

At least three passengers were confirmed killed in the accident; Train 501 was carrying 86 passengers and crew when the accident occurred.

In addition to the injuries and deaths on the train, 100 people were injured in the accident, including some people in passenger cars on the freeway near where the train derailed. Reports state that at least five vehicles on Interstate 5 were damaged by the derailed train cars, but no fatalities were reported.

Newest Amtrak train derailment described as “avoidable”

Mayor Don Anderson of Lakewood, Washington had been expressing concerns about the railway in question since 2013. That year his city sued the Washington Department of Transportation. They claimed that the project for the railway hadn’t undergone the proper environmental reviews. But in 2014 the suit was dismissed, citing “no genuine issues of material fact.”

Earlier in December, Mayor Anderson spoke at a town meeting, once again stating his concerns for the project. Within weeks of the meeting, tragedy struck.

The greatest point of contention is the adaptation of modernized safety measures on the US railways. After a deadly 2008 train crash involving a passenger train and a freight train, a flurry of legal and technological developments followed. Metrolink, whose passenger train was involved in the accident, implemented a series of safety technologies all intended to account for human error.

Among these technologies was Positive Train Control (PTC). This tech enforces speed limits on railroad tracks, and is slated to be installed on significant portion of railways nationwide by 2018. It was a Metrolink engineer who ultimately was held responsible for the 2008 accident, running a red light on the rail while texting from his cell phone. Under ideal circumstances, PTC would have detected that the train was entering a zone at unsafe speeds, as well as detecting an oncoming train on the opposing railroad track. It would then automatically slow the train to the speed limit, or attempt to stop the train, depending on the circumstances.

Unfortunately for Amtrak Train 501, while PTC was present on the railway where the train derailment occurred, the technology was not active. Due to unfinished testing and implementation, it had not been cleared for operation.

Technology stalled by price and complexity

The PTC system potentially could have prevented the train derailment in Washington. It is not a new technology; the NTSB has been pushing for Positive Train Control for decades. But in 2004, an analysis by the Federal Railway Administration described the benefits of the technology uncertain in the face of the costs to implement it.

It wasn’t until the 2008 Metrolink derailment that a serious push for the technology started. Adoption of it is slow for a variety of reasons.

Over 20 years, the cost of PTC integration in the nation’s railways is expected to reach $22.5 billion. Originally, the end of 2015 was the deadline to have PTC systems on all major rail lines. But the price tag proved to be a challenge for many rail operators. Ultimately, the deadline was pushed back to 2018 for many major railroads, including Amtrak. Many other companies have pushed their own implementation back as far as 2020.

Federal funding for PTC implementation is limited. In 2017, the Federal Railway Administration announced that up to $199 million in grants was available for commuter railroads, state, and local governments. The financial pressure on operators to implement PTC, and other safety measures, lead to the deadline to be moved from 2015 to 2018, to prevent a predicted shutdown of services.

Outside of cost, complexity is a major issue. PTC infrastructure is complex, affecting the railways themselves and the trains that run on them. Extensive testing is required to ensure the system is running properly. The cost of PTC has led to delays of maintenance of the railways, which includes track replacement and repair.

Metrolink was the first commuter rail service in the nation to implement PTC, as well as a number of other safety measures. But by 2016, a mere 16% of Class I freight railroads that were required to have PTC installed had done so. Less than a quarter of passenger railways had managed to put the technology in place.

This recent train derailment in Washington has renewed attention on railway safety and Positive Train Control. Unfortunately for the victims of this accident, and others that have preceded it, the technology can’t change what has already happened. Survivors are left to question if enough is being done to ensure the safety of trains around the US. Whether the technology will be ready before the next accident occurs, is purely speculation for now.

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