Had Congress Not Caved To Lobbyists, Last Week’s Train Derailment Might Not Have Happened (Video)

The train derailment accident last week in DuPont, Washington that killed three people never should have happened.

Federal investigators reported the Amtrak Cascades passenger train was traveling 80 mph into a 30 mph bend enroute to Portland when it derailed and plunged into traffic on an interstate near Tacoma.

In addition to the three dead, more than 70 people were rushed to hospitals.

The train had the technology to govern its speed, but thanks to lobbyists and Congress, that technology had not yet been approved for use.

Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesman, told BuzzFeed News:

“The equipment on the trains and tracks is not integrated with the control center equipment yet and testing and certification still need to occur as well.”

A 2008 head-on crash between a passenger and freight train in Los Angeles spurred Congress to mandate Positive Train Control (PTC) systems, intended to be completed by 2015.

Designed to compensate for human error, PTC systems use computers, wireless radios, and GPS to monitor and automatically slow train speeds when sensing a train is speeding or may crash.

But railroad companies lobbied Congress, arguing the $22.5 billion price tag over 20 years and technological hurdles warranted delaying PTC implementation.

Congress gave them until the end of 2018 or 2020 if necessary.

Rail safety expert and former board chairman of Southern California’s Metrolink commuter rail system, Keith Millhouse, said:

“Had there been a diligent effort to ensure Positive Train Control was in place, this [Tuesday’s] accident probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s reckless not to have this safety technology in 2017.”

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official, Bella Dinh-Zarr, said Tuesday:

“There was a recommendation, a mandate, to install [PTC]. Unfortunately, the deadline was the end of 2015. For some reason, Congress extended that deadline to train companies to the end of 2018.”

Millhouse said in addition to PTC, rail companies should also install cameras to monitor engineers’ behavior.

He said:

“They act as a deterrent to bad conduct. They capture cell phone use, show if someone is not paying attention, or if they’ve nodded off. They provide forensic evidence of what the engineer was doing at the time of the accident.”

He added that, although expensive, there is no alternative.

He said:

“It is a very complicated technology, it’s expensive, and it takes time to implement, but without it, it’s like using one of those old brick cell phones in the age of an iPhone. It doesn’t make sense.”

In March, the Federal Railroad Administration reported as of the end of last year, PTC systems had been activated on just 16 percent of freight railroad tracks and 24 percent of passenger railroad lines.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak has installed PTC in 49 percent of its trains and 67 percent of its tracks.

DuPont, Wash. Mayor Mike Courts said Tuesday’s crash heightened his concern about rail officials cutting corners.

“If you have the technologies to prevent these crashes, why aren’t you using those? They are going to have to work really hard to sell that line to people in my town after it jumped the track and killed people on its first day.”

Just like with gun control and climate change, we have the technology.

What we lack is the political will.

Image credit: catholiccourier.com


Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been in featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to Op-Ed News, Liberal Nation Rising, and Zoedune.