The deadly Amtrak Cascades train derailment on Dec. 18, 2017 occurred while the train was traveling at about 80 mph – a speed far in excess of the designated 30 mph limit for that portion of track. The results left portions of the train cars hanging above and spilling onto the interstate below. Sadly three people were killed and more than 100 were injured.

The possibility of driver distraction has been the subject of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Administration’s investigation ever since the accident occurred. Due to the possibility of human error as a major cause of the derailment, speculation immediately arose concerning whether or not positive train control (PTC) technology would have stopped the disaster.

Preliminary NTSB accident report confirms the need for PTC

A preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board has determined that positive train control and its automatic safety braking system would have prevented the derailment near Tacoma, WA in December.

NTSB investigators stated, “In this accident, PTC would have notified the engineer of train 501 about the speed reduction for the curve; if the engineer did not take appropriate action to control the train’s speed, PTC would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction and to stop the train.”

How positive train control works

Positive train control is a real-time data communication system that delivers information to the train’s computer and verifies if the train is operating according to the proper direction and speed along the route. If the train is traveling above the speed limit, the computer can assume control and slow or stop the train.

The system is a combination of computer monitoring, GPS, and wireless radio which combined, can prevent speeding, derailing, and collisions. Its purpose is to prevent human error that occurs in approximately 40 percent of train accidents.

Complete installation of PTC on the portion of the route where the derailment occurred had been scheduled for the spring of 2018. Representative for NTSB, Bella Dinh-Zarr lamented the delay in implementing PTC across the nation. “The shameful part, the disappointing part, is that positive train control should have been implemented nationwide long ago, and it hasn’t been.” She added, “That’s one reason people have been losing their lives.”

Previous train derailments have resurfaced the issue of why positive train control has yet to be installed across the board. These include the 2015 Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia resulting in eight deaths, and the 2016 Hoboken New Jersey commuter rail crash that took one life and injured thousands.

Congress had required all passenger rails and some freight trains to install positive train control technology by 2015. After subsequent resistance from railroads, to the point of threatening operational shutdowns, the deadline was extended to the latter part of 2018, with the possibility for a further extension to 2020. The industry cited the complexities and expense – reportedly more than $22 billion over 20 years – for installation and testing.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 24 percent of tracks owned by passenger railroads and 45 percent tracks owned by freight railroads have an active positive train control system installed.

Although the technology may not prevent every train accident in the nation, the recent Amtrak Washington derailment is a stark reminder of the high price to be paid in lives if these investments are not made.

If you or a loved one has been severely hurt in a railway accident, you may be entitled to a substantial claim for compensation. Our experienced Chicago train accident lawyers at Gainsberg Law know how to fight on your behalf in the face of powerful insurance companies and their legal resources. We work hard to help you obtain justice and the monetary resources you need for your recovery. To set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys, call us today at 312-600-9585 or send us an email through our contact form.