‘You can’t put a price on human life’: A year after deadly Amtrak derailment, rail safety deadline looms

DUPONT, Wash. – There is little question whether a technology called Positive Train Control could have prevented the derailment of a passenger train near DuPont, Washington, a year ago today.

As Amtrak Cascades train 501 approached a curve on its maiden voyage across the Point Defiant Bypass on December 18, 2017, it was traveling at 80 miles per hour. It should have been going 30.

Had Positive Train Control (PTC) been in place at the time, the system would have detected the speeding train and automatically slowed it down, preventing the deaths of three passengers and injuries suffered by more than 70 others, including commuters who were driving on Interstate 5 when the train plunged from the overpass above.

A year after the deadly derailment, progress has been made to install PTC on that route, as well as others across Washington state.

“Positive Train Control is already operating throughout Washington for all passenger trains,” said Janet Matkin, communications manager for WSDOT’s Rail, Freight and Ports Division. “We’re happy to report that during the last year, all of the elements for Positive Train Control have been put into place, they’ve integrated with one another, and our trains are currently operating under Positive Train Control.”

With the addition of PTC, the Point Defiance Bypass is expected to reopen to Amtrak passenger trains in the spring of 2019, following a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into factors that may have led to the derailment, such as training and qualification of the crew.

But nationwide, many rail companies are flirting with a deadline set by Congress to install PTC by December 31.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “many railroads remain in the early stages of PTC implementation, such as equipment installation and early testing. Most railroads anticipate needing an extension.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has pushed to make PTC installation a federal priority. In a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in January, Senator Murray and 14 of her colleagues stressed it was “imperative that FRA conduct vigorous oversight of the data provided by railroads and use all tools within the FRA’s authority to ensure that all railroads complete full PTC implementation by the deadline.”

As the deadline now looms, it’s unclear whether Congress would weigh any actual punishments for rail companies that miss it.

The requirement for Positive Train Control came after a collision between a Union Pacific locomotive and a Metrolink commuter train in Chatsworth, California, in 2008. The crash killed 25 people and left 125 others injured.

Keith Millhouse, who was chosen to chair the board for Southern California’s Metrolink after the crash, said they made PTC installation a priority despite the high cost. Now, as a rail safety expert and consultant, Millhouse has continued to push for PTC implementation nationwide.

"It’s not easy and it’s not inexpensive, but you can’t put a price on human life,” he told Q13 News on Tuesday. “To say, 'we’re not going to do it because we don’t have the money,' is just a cop out.”

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