Crash-preventing technology installed but not used on tracks in WA derailment

Aerial image of an Amtrak train that derailed and dove off an overpass onto lanes of Interstate 5 southbound, north of Olympia, Washington Monday morning.

KATU has learned technology aimed at preventing derailments was installed on the tracks where a train derailed near DuPont, Washington Monday morning, but it was not activated.

When asked on Monday if the technology, positive train control (PTC), had been installed on the train prior to the crash, Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams told a KATU reporter by email, "Positive train control equipment has been installed and is now still in testing, which is why the system has not been activated."

On Tuesday afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said PTC was not installed on the train. Later Tuesday Abrams did not immediately answer multiple questions regarding the discrepancy.

At a news conference in Tacoma Tuesday evening, Richard Anderson, Amtrak's president, said, "PTC was not per se on the train."

The cause of the derailment is still under investigation.

The train was traveling a route that was once occasionally used by freight trains. It was just opened to passenger liners Monday as part of a $181 million improvement project. The makeover was meant to speed up travel along Amtrak's route between Seattle and Portland. The trains are outfitted with what authorities call "state-of-the-art" locomotives.

Late Monday night, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said a data recorder showed the train that derailed was traveling at 80 mph in a zone with a 30 mph speed limit.

The speed limit drops from 79 mph to 30 mph for passenger trains in that area.

"We are deeply saddened by all that has happened," Richard Anderson, the president of Amtrak, said regarding the deadly derailment Monday afternoon.

He confirmed PTC, a technology aimed at preventing crashes, was not activated before the accident. It's a system that uses GPS and other sensors to track the location of trains and is able to stop them or keep them from going too fast.

"We are huge supporters of positive train control at Amtrak," Anderson said.

Congress has required all passenger trains to fully implement positive train control by the end of next year. They can get a 2-year extension if certain requirements are met. The original deadline was the end of 2015, but it was extended.

Congressman Denny Heck, the Democrat who represents the district where the derailment happened, said Monday that PTC should be more widely implemented.

"It's a disappointment that we're not farther along in the installation of positive train control onto trains throughout America, not just in my district," Heck said. "This is an American issue. These devices were authorized in 2008. We did provide some money in the F.A.S.T. Act that we passed last year to begin it. But we're way behind schedule. There is no doubt about it."

The track in Monday morning's derailment was under the control of Sound Transit. A spokesman for that agency told KATU positive train control equipment was installed on the tracks but it's not yet operational. On Tuesday he said it would be operational by June and that it's a challenging process to implement.

PTC is up and running in other parts of the U.S. including the Northeast and Midwest.

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