A new high-speed train linking Seattle with Portland, Ore., went on its inaugural run last week, but unfortunately train safety was left at the station.
The results were, perhaps, too predictable. Amtrak Cascades 501 went off the rails on Dec. 18 as it headed into a tricky curve going almost 80 mph, well over the 30-mph limit for that curve.
It spilled onto an interstate highway, killing three passengers and injuring 100 others.
The National Transportation and Safety Board is now sorting through the wreckage to determine the causes, but one thing is clear: Cascades 501 did not have a positive train control activated.
PTC is a GPS-based technology that can automatically slow or stop trains if they are going too fast or if the engineer is distracted. Cascades 501 and the tracks on the Seattle-to-Portland route are being outfitted with it — but that work is not done and won’t be until next spring.
It is not a new system. The NTSB has advocated for it for almost a half-century, but railroads fought it, and it wasn’t until a California train crash nine years ago killed 25 people that Congress ordered the nation’s railroads to implement it by 2015.
Even then, delays continued. With pressure from railroads, Congress pushed back the deadline for PTC compliance to 2018 — in some cases, 2020.
The cost of delay can be measured in the body count. The NTSB estimates that since it first recommended going to PTC in 1969, the system could have prevented 298 lives lost, 6,763 injuries and nearly $385 million in property damage, according to the Seattle Times.
That count does not include the Cascades 501 mayhem, a tragedy that could have been averted.
That blame rests largely with Congress.
Yes, there has been some progress made since Congress mandated the safety system. Almost a quarter of the nation’s passenger route miles — including the heavily travelled Northeast Corridor linking Boston and Washington, D.C. — and close to half of the freight route miles have now implemented positive train control.
But at the same time, Amtrak and other railroads are sending out new high-speed trains — like the Cascade and another one in Florida — without waiting for their PTC systems to be activated.
That needs to stop. Passenger safety should not be compromised when there are systems that can protect them.
Railroads need to accelerate their safety systems before they accelerate their trains. Otherwise, there will be more blood on the tracks.