Last December, a devastating Amtrak derailment in Washington state killed at least three people and injured dozens more. The passenger train left the track at an overpass, and several cars fell onto the busy highway below. It had been traveling at 80 mph on a section of track with a maximum safe speed of 30 mph.

Many believe that tragedy, which killed and injured both passengers and railroad workers, could have been prevented if computer-based Positive Train Control (PTC) systems had been in place on that stretch of track. Sadly, however, they were not – despite a federal mandate that should have seen PTC on all major railways by 2015.

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Congress Mandated PTC Implementation by 2015

On September 12, 2008, a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train crashed head-on in Los Angeles. In response to that tragedy, Congress passed legislation that called for the implementation of PTC systems on every inch of the country’s major railways by 2015.

Both the 2008 Los Angeles collision and the 2017 Amtrak derailment in Washington state were the kind of railroad accidents that PTC is designed to prevent. The computer-run technology automatically slows down or stops a train if the engineer fails to respond to a signal or exceeds the safe speed limit for a section of track. It is meant to eliminate human error as a contributing factor in rail accidents, and to protect the lives of both railroad workers and train passengers.

Delays Put PTC Behind by Three to Five Years 

Though most in government and the railroad industry agree that PTC is important – even crucial – for improving safety on the country’s railways, implementation has been frustratingly slow, largely due to the glacial pace of the railroad companies.

One reason cited by the railroads is the cost – an estimated $22.5 billion over 20 years, the largest expenditure ever imposed on the railroad industry by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Another alleged roadblock is the significant technological challenge. Railroads claim they must create entirely new technologies just for PTC that require rigorous testing. This includes a shared database that provides information on, among other things, the locations of switches and signals that are constantly changing. Many have likened the undertaking to creating an entirely new Air Traffic Control system – but for trains. The fact remains, however, that despite government demands, the railway companies are in the best position to implement PTC and protect worker and passenger safety.

Because of their delays, the country’s railroads blew by the 2015 deadline for PTC implementation. At the end of 2016, PCT had been activated on only 16 percent of freight tracks and just 24 percent of passenger tracks. It’s estimated that most railroads are 3-5 years from full implementation.

PTC Delays Are Putting Railroaders at Risk 

No one is arguing that PTC isn’t costly, complicated technology. It is. However, given its potential to significantly reduce rail accidents caused by human error, these hurdles must be overcome – and soon.

Every day that goes by without full PTC implementation puts our country’s dedicated railroaders at increased risk of injury and even death. It is also imperative for passenger safety.

The FELA lawyers at Sommers Schwartz urge the federal government and railroads to address the issues that are keeping PTC from protecting the nation’s railroaders, and enable this life-saving technology as soon as possible.

Ben Wilensky

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Ben Wilensky

Ben focuses on representing railroad workers seeking compensation for injuries under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. He also represents clients in professional malpractice, civil rights, products liability, fraud litigation, governmental liability, RICO, business disputes and employment law.

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