7 On Your Side Investigates: Freight trains better equipped with safety tech than passenger trains

Monday, February 05, 2018 04:56PM
Danielle Leigh investigates how well transit companies are complying with a federal mandate to fully implement positive train control on trains and tracks.


NEW YORK - Following this week's deadly Amtrak train accident, 7 On Your Side Investigates examined how well transit companies are complying with a federal mandate to fully implement positive train control on trains and tracks.

On Sunday, an Amtrak train traveling from New York to Miami collided with a parked freight train near Columbia, South Carolina.

Positive train control uses GPS and other technology to stop trains from colliding, derailing or speeding.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the train and track involved in Sunday's crash were not using the safety technology when CSX, the company in charge of the track, left a track switch locked in the wrong position, sending the Amtrak train onto a side track.

"Positive train control is designed to prevent four types of accidents, and this is exactly one of those four types that it is designed to prevent," Sumwalt said. "It knows where the train is, and it knows what the signals are showing."

Data obtained by the Federal Railroad Administration show trains carrying merchandise are better equipped with train protection systems than those carrying people.

According to the data, 68 percent of freight trains and 59 percent of freight tracks have PTC technology, while only 50 percent of passenger trains and 25 percent of passenger tracks have the technology.

In 2008, Congress mandated rail companies fully implement PTC to save lives. It then extended a 2015 deadline to the end of 2018.

Yet, even with a decade's notice, many transit companies appear to be struggling to meet the deadline.

CSX, the major freight company controlling the track in Sunday's wreck, has installed this monitoring equipment on less than half of the tracks it operates.

Amtrak has installed the safety system on 71 percent of its trains and 67 percent of its tracks, according to the FRA.

Other New York-area transit systems are even further behind.

According to the FRA, New Jersey Transit has installed PTC in only 6 percent of its trains and has not begun installing the technology on any tracks.

Metro North has installed PTC on 27 percent of its trains and like New Jersey Transit, has not added the technology to any tracks.

Long Island Railroad has installed PTC on 49 percent of its trains and 7 percent of its tracks.

"The sooner it gets installed the better so that we won't be here at tragic accidents like we're looking at today," Sumwalt said.

Sunday's crash marked the third fatal Amtrak train crash in less than two months.

In 2017, derailments accounted for nearly one in three Amtrak train accidents, according to data from the FRA. Collisions were much less frequent.

Most often, the accidents were caused by human factors, miscellaneous causes and track defects.

In this latest incident that killed two people, investigators said determining why the track switch had been locked into the wrong position sending the Amtrak train on the wrong track will be key.

Sumwalt cautioned riders not to be concerned by the recent flurry of incidents.

"Generally speaking, our rail system works well," he said.

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