By Don C. Brunell, Guest Columnist
While the investigation continues into the deadly Amtrak derailment near DuPont, Washington, the clock continues to tick on the implementation of Positive Track Control (PTC). The deadline is Dec. 31.
PTC integrates new satellite tracking (GPS) and trackside technology for passenger, freight and commuter rail service. It is designed to instantly feed mountains of detailed and complex information to control centers and moving locomotives to automatically stop speeding trains from going off the track and colliding.
Neither the track on new Point Defiance bypass between Tacoma and Olympia nor the engines propelling Amtrak Train 501 on its inaugural high-speed run were equipped with new anti-crash system.
“The lightly used freight line, first laid out in 1891, would be converted into a bypass route to allow passenger trains to avoid a congested section of tracks and tunnels that run along Puget Sound in Tacoma,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Dec. 18 train crash occurred on track upgraded by the state of Washington to allow trains to reach speeds up to 80 miles per hour (mph). High-speed commuter rail was planned to relieve vehicle traffic congestion on Interstate 5 between Portland and Seattle.
The plan met with opposition from city leaders in congested communities such as Lakewood, where the speeding trains would run. One controversial glitch was the sharp curve adjacent to the Joint Base Lewis McCord golf course, where the derailment occurred. To avoid derailing, trains were supposed to slow down to 30 mph.
Speed and the tight turn are the focal points of the investigations into the Dec. 18 accident which killed three on the train and sent dozens to the hospital after the Amtrak train derailed on an I-5 overpass, spilling train cars onto the highway below. Miraculously, the incident did not kill a single driver going south on I-5 during the morning commute.
PTC was mandated by Congress and President George W. Bush in 2008. The law required that passenger and Class 1 (larger railroads such as Union Pacific and BNSF) freight railroads complete installation of the technologies designed to automatically stop trains before accidents caused by human error.
According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the system is specifically designed to avoid train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, unauthorized incursions by trains onto sections of track where maintenance is taking place, and the movement of a train through a track where the switch is left in the wrong position.
Even without PTC, rail-safety experts told the Wall Street Journal that Amtrak 501 should have been able to pass through the curve safely.
According to AAR, trains and track carrying passengers on main lines or “toxic-by-inhalations materials” were to install PTC by the end of 2015. However, the deadline was subsequently extended for three years.
Such a system requires highly complex technologies able to analyze and incorporate the huge number of variable that affect train operation. The estimated price tag for freight railroad alone is roughly $10.6 billion with hundreds of millions spent each year to maintain the system and train thousands of railroad workers.
In Western Washington, BNSF and Union Pacific trains running north-south carrying oil, coal, lumber, wheat, containers, autos, chemicals and other cargo share common track with Amtrak and Sounder commuter trains.
BNSF and Amtrak share the same rails for east-west routes on the northside of the Columbia River between Vancouver and the Tri-Cities and over Stevens Pass between Everett and Spokane. They are equipped with PTC.
BNSF stated in a special report issued on Dec. 22 that, overall, BNSF is equipping 5,000 locomotives and 11,300 miles of track across its system. It has already logged 800,000 successful PTC trips.
At the end of October, Union Pacific had nearly 6,000 miles with PTC operations and 3,200 engines equipped. It anticipates spending $2.9 billion for this new safety technology.
Both railroads plan to meet next year’s deadline.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.