In its inaugural run from Seattle to Portland, Amtrak 501 derailed on Dec. 18, 2017. Several train cars crashed over an overpass and landed on the interstate near DuPont, Washington. Over 50 passengers and crew members were injured, as well as eight individuals in highway vehicles. Many of the injured required hospitalization, and three died as a result of the derailment.
Analysis showed five crew members had been on board—with some reporting feeling unprepared for the new route—and, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the crash prevention technology known as Positive Train Control (PTC) had not been activated.
PTC is an unprecedented technology strategically designed to address human error and make rail safer. Through communication and processor-based train control technology, PTC systems can reliably prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into active work zones and movements through switches in the wrong position.
For example, when PTC is activated, an engineer would receive a visual notification if the train needs a speed reduction to safely enter an approaching track curve. If the engineer does not respond appropriately by adjusting speed, the PTC could “take control” of the train and stop it to prevent derailment.
By way of background, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 after a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided head on, killing 25 people near the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles. This law mandated PTC systems be fully implemented by Dec. 31, 2015—later extended to 2018—on Class I railroad main lines that transport certain hazardous materials and any main lines with regularly scheduled rail passenger service.
While PTC cannot prevent every accident, it has been shown to be effective. The report analyzing the Amtrak 501 accident explained that had PTC been fully implemented and operational, the engineer would have been warned of the danger, and that, if he had not responded by appropriately adjusting speed, the PTC system would have stopped the train—and the accident would have been prevented.
But what of other safety measures?
In 2021, a federal court ruled the former presidential administration violated the law when it tried to override state regulations dictating how many crew members are needed to safely operate a train. Three states and two national unions challenged the previous ruling, citing safety concerns when it comes to operating a train with only one crew member. As a result of the latest ruling, states may once again adopt and enforce laws requiring a minimum number of crew members onboard.
While safety concerns are of utmost importance, the data does not reflect investment in multiple crew members. Some Class I railroads—and, at times, Amtrak—have operated for many years with just one crew member in the cab. Thousands of commuter and passenger trains do the same every day—with safety records comparable to two-person operated trains.
With a significant shortage of skilled workers, would the talent of dedicated crew members be better spent on other pressing safety measures? Indeed, railroad deaths totaled 893 in 2021, a 20% increase from 2020 and the highest since 2007. But of all rail-related fatalities and injuries, 94% occur at railroad crossings or due to trespassing, not on board trains.
Looking back at the Amtrak 501 case, the investigation determined the probable cause of the derailment was lack of training and PTC activation, not crew numbers. The report stated the responsible transit authority failed to provide “an effective mitigation for the hazardous curve without Positive Train Control in place” and “adequate training” on the territory and on the newer equipment for the train’s engineer.
Thus, looking at the data, the real efforts to improve safety must come from adequate support and inclusive training for transportation professionals, as well as aggressively maintaining, modernizing and investing in infrastructure and equipment.
In the end, we recognize that PTC, crew size requirements and investment in training cannot prevent every crash, but combining scientifically-proven safety measures and investing in rail infrastructure and workers is a critical step in the right direction.
San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.
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