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PTC Might Have Prevented Amtrak Crash, NTSB Says

05 January 2018

Positive train control (PTC) would have slowed an Amtrak train that derailed in Washington State in December, according to a preliminary factual report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The technology was not in use on December 18 as the train traveled along a new stretch of track and entered a curve with a posted speed reduction.

PTC might have prevented the December 18 accident that killed three an injured more than 60. Credit: NTSB/Washington State PatrolPTC might have prevented the December 18 accident that killed three an injured more than 60. Credit: NTSB/Washington State Patrol"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," NTSB wrote.

The train was moving at 78 mph before it derailed. Three passengers were killed, and 62 passengers and crew were hurt, as well as eight people on the highway. Damages are estimated to exceed $40.4 million.

The lead locomotive, the power car and two passenger railcars derailed onto Interstate 5. Fourteen highway vehicles hit the derailed equipment. At the time of the accident, 77 passengers, five Amtrak employees and a contract technician were on the train.

The NTSB report says that the authorized track speed near the accident site is 79 mph and decreases to 30 mph prior to a curve. A 30 mph speed sign was posted two miles before the curve on the engineer’s side of the track to remind crews of the upcoming speed restriction. Another 30 mph speed sign was on the wayside at the beginning of the curve on the engineer’s side of the locomotive, NTSB says.

The lead locomotive’s event data and video recorders were downloaded. NTSB says an initial review of the final portion of the accident sequence revealed that:

  • The crew was not seen using any personal electronic devices.
  • About six seconds prior to the derailment, the engineer made a comment regarding an overspeed condition.
  • The engineer’s actions were consistent with the application of the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended. It did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode.
  • The recording ended as the locomotive was tilting and the crew was bracing for impact.
  • The final recorded speed of the locomotive was 78 mph.

NTSB says that PTC, an advanced train control system mandated by Congress in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position.

The NTSB says that in the Washington State 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.

Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority reported that the PTC system on this line was not operational at the time of the accident. The current Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) deadline for PTC implementation is Dec. 31, 2018.

The 55-year-old engineer had been working for Amtrak since May 2004 and had been promoted to engineer in August 2013. The other crewmember in the cab of the locomotive was a 48-year-old “qualifying” conductor who was being familiarized with the territory. This conductor had been working for Amtrak since June 2010 and had been promoted to conductor in November 2011.

To contact the author of this article, email david.wagman@ieeeglobalspec.com


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