Positive train control not yet ready on any Amtrak Cascades, heavy rail TriMet trains

KATU file image

The passenger train that derailed near DuPont, Washington on Monday was part of Amtrak's Cascades line, which runs between Eugene and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Oregon's Department of Transportation (ODOT) said Wednesday that none of the line's trains have activated positive train control (PTC), a soon-to-be required crash-prevention technology. TriMet made similar claims about its heavy rail trains.

Both agencies said they're working to employ the technology.

"I can’t speak about private railroads," Shelley Snow, an ODOT spokeswoman, said via email. "But I can tell you that none of the Amtrak Cascades trains and associated infrastructure are ready yet with PTC – we have elements ready to be installed, materials being prepped, plans for installing and testing, etc. and our goal is to have the Amtrak Cascades system compliant with PTC by mid-2018."

In 2008, Congress required PTC to be installed on nearly all heavy rail passenger trains by the end of 2015.

Lawmakers later moved that deadline to the end of next year.

TriMet said its heavy rail Westside Express Service (WES) running between Beaverton and Wilsonville will meet that deadline.

"PTC has been installed and is in the testing phase on all federally regulated TriMet WES trains," Tia York, a TriMet spokeswoman, told KATU on Wednesday. "It will be fully operational before (the) 2018 year end."

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators said the train that derailed Monday in Washington was going 78 mph in a 30 mph zone.

Richard Anderson, Amtrak's president and co-CEO, said Tuesday that PTC was not installed on the train.

"It's not clear yet from the NTSB whether PTC would've prevented the accident or not," Anderson explained, noting that the cause of the crash is still under investigation.

PTC is a combination of technologies that keep track of a train's location and can automatically slow or stop it to prevent crashes.

Anderson, who just took over Amtrak in July, said PTC will be installed and operable on all trains by the federal government's deadline of Dec. 31, 2018.

Regarding its safety record, he admits Amtrak needs to do better.

"We have to keep this as a wake-up call," Anderson said. "It's not acceptable that we are involved in these kinds of accidents. We're terribly sorry to the people that are involved."

TriMet said all of its trains have a number of safeguards already in place.

On light rail MAX trains, which won't be required to have PTC, York said they've installed an automated braking system that kicks in when a train goes over the speed limit. MAX trains also have a "dead man” control, York explained, meaning the operator must engage the control at all times and if that interaction stops, the train comes to a stop.

In 2008, York said TriMet installed a system called automatic train control (ATC) on the WES line that performs a similar function around curves and bridges.

"ATC, along with our cab signal system effectively ensures an accident similar to the recent over-speed derailment is extremely unlikely to happen," York explained. "The cab signal system automatically limits speeds in most locations."

Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) said he spoke with Anderson Wednesday and Anderson committed to covering derailment costs and speeding up the implementation of PTC.

Anderson and other rail authorities have said putting the technology in place is highly-complicated and involves multiple agencies. He said PTC is up and running in parts of the Northeast and Midwest.

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