On a summer afternoon in Southern California nine years ago, a commuter train blew through a stop signal and ran head-on into an oncoming freight train, killing 25 people.
After investigators determined that the crash could have been prevented by automatic-braking technology, Congress ordered all passenger railroads to install new systems by 2016. Since then, Congress has extended that deadline and trains have kept speeding into preventable disasters, including the Amtrak derailment that killed three people in Western Washington on Monday.
In Amtrak’s case, this is a recurring nightmare. The crash this week was eerily reminiscent of one just two years ago in Philadelphia, where an Amtrak train barreled into a sweeping curve at 106 miles an hour before jumping the tracks and rolling over. Eight people died.
That crash, too, could have been prevented by the technology, known as positive train control. But five months after it happened, Congress gave railroads at least three more years to install it.
“Here we are, almost 10 years later, and that deadline came and went,” said Kitty Higgins, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The railroads have been slow-walking it and it still is not implemented. It’s absolutely outrageous.”
Railroads have cited the cost and complexity of adding the technology, which relies on satellites and radio signals to prevent trains from running out of control if an engineer has lost focus or fallen asleep while driving. Industry estimates of the total cost of installation exceed $10 billion.
But over the years since the mandate, railroads have continued to spend money on other priorities, including new trains and stations and passenger amenities. Since the Philadelphia accident, Amtrak has put the technology into use on the Northeast Corridor, from Boston to Washington. But it is not installed on most other passenger lines, including Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit.
“It is complicated, but the railroads have been at this for a very long time,” said Ms. Higgins, who was the safety board’s lead representative at the scene of the California crash. “We put a man on the moon 50 years ago faster than we’ve been able to implement positive train control. I mean, come on.”
The drawn-out campaign to adopt the technology reflects the conflicting forces at work on the nation’s rails. Freight rail companies are the biggest users of tracks in most parts of the country, and they initially did not see enough benefits to investing in positive train control. But passenger railroads often share those tracks, as Amtrak’s Cascades service does in the Pacific Northwest.
Indeed, the new section of track in DuPont, Wash., near where the Cascades train derailed on Monday, was an old freight line that had been revamped for passenger trains and named the Point Defiance Bypass. Investigators from the N.T.S.B. have not determined what caused the crash or if positive train control would have prevented it. But they said the train was going 80 miles an hour into a curve with a limit of 30 miles an hour, and that, although equipment for the automatic-braking system was in place, it was not yet in use.
On Wednesday, the Pierce County medical examiner’s office identified the third victim of the crash as Benjamin Gran, 40, of Auburn, Wash.
Richard Anderson, co-chief executive of Amtrak, said on Wednesday that the crash was “a wake-up call” and that Amtrak was determined to operate “the safest railroad in the world.”
Installing the safety technology is only one challenge. The system requires operators of trains to be able to communicate instantly and continually with rail company back offices. Those must be connected with the track’s owners so that real-time information about track conditions and switches — or curves requiring a slowdown — can be fed into the system that automatically slows or stop a train as conditions change. And as in many other parts of the nation’s train system, different entities own different pieces. If all three of the components are not harnessed together and working, then none of it works.
The track used by Amtrak between Tacoma and DuPont, for example, is owned by Sound Transit, a regional transportation agency that serves the Seattle metro area. Rachelle Cunningham, a spokeswoman for Sound Transit, said the agency was on schedule to have positive train control installed by the middle of next year. The BNSF Railroad owns most of the rest of the track in the corridor, Ms. Cunningham said, until the Oregon border, at which point, she said, it becomes Union Pacific’s. When asked why the technology was not added in time for the maiden voyage, Sound Transit referred questions to Amtrak and Washington State’s Department of Transportation. Amtrak earlier this week referred questions on the technology to Sound Transit.
Ms. Cunningham said Sound Transit was only responsible for the track components on a part of the system, while Amtrak and other companies were responsible for the equipment on trains, the radio towers and control center.
As they lobbied against the initial deadline in 2015, the railroad industry complained that the date had been set arbitrarily, without studying how long it would take to develop the systems, secure permits and put the projects to public bids. One of the most expensive aspects of the technology is the need to acquire wireless spectrum over which information about train movement can be transmitted.
Warning that rail lines might have to suspend service and curtail shipments, railroads asked Congress to delay the 2015 deadline. Lawmakers were ready to push it back to 2020, until the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in the spring of that year.
Legislators settled for a new deadline of Dec. 31, 2018, with an additional, two-year extension possible on a case-by-case basis. President Barack Obama signed the extension into law in October 2015.
The two Republican lawmakers behind the deadline extension, Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania and Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, were the top two recipients of political campaign contributions from the railroad industry in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“We knew the mandate would be challenging, but we hoped railroads would be able to meet that deadline, seven years into the future,” said Mr. Shuster in 2015 during a hearing to delay the deadline. “Unfortunately, we know today that will not be the case.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, called the delays in adopting the technology “scandalously irresponsible.”
“They have been directly the result of railroads using their political sway to achieve repeated postponements,” he said.
The Senate committee plans to hold an oversight hearing on the status of positive train control this winter, in the wake of the Washington State crash. When the crash occurred in Philadelphia, Amtrak had a version of positive train control operating along parts of its network, but not on the section of the accident.
Joseph Boardman, a former chief executive of Amtrak, said the company could have had the system in place throughout the corridor more than 15 years ago if Congress had not kept cutting the railroad’s funding. “It’s the same problem that you see everywhere with the infrastructure funding — not enough being available to do the job,” he said.
For Amtrak, the latest crash has reinforced the view that the railroad may be skimping on safety. Last year, one of its trains slammed into a piece of maintenance equipment in Chester, Pa., killing two workers on the tracks. In a report on that accident, Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the safety board, said “Amtrak’s safety culture is failing, and is primed to fail again, until and unless Amtrak changes the way it practices safety management.”
Mr. Boardman, who has at times been critical of his successors at Amtrak, disagreed.
“Do I think Amtrak’s unsafe?” he said. “No. It’s not unsafe, not at all.”
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