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Rail News: Amtrak

Boardman promises PTC for the Northeast Corridor by year's end


Despite last month's fatal derailment near Philadelphia, Amtrak remains committed to the implementation of positive train control (PTC) along the Northeast Corridor (NEC) by Dec. 31, Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman testified yesterday at a congressional hearing on the accident.

"Safety must continue to be our highest priority," Boardman told the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in his submitted testimony. He noted that safety systems along the NEC are the best in the nation.

Prior to last month's derailment at what is known as the Frankford Junction, Amtrak's last fatal passenger accident on the NEC from a derailment or collision occurred 28 years ago.

"In no other place is a comparable volume of traffic moved with such a solid record," Boardman said. "In addition to a thorough training, oversight and coaching system for our crews, we have a layered signal system that provides trains with multiple levels of protection."

PTC is in service from New Haven, Conn., to Boston, and at points between Washington, D.C., and New York City where trains exceed 125 mph. PTC has been installed on the rest of the Amtrak-owned and operated NEC, and is scheduled to be operational by the federal government's mandated deadline for railroads to install PTC by the end of 2015.

In a prepared statement issued after the hearing, Association of American Railroads President and CEO Edward Hamberger commended Boardman for Amtrak's commitment to safety and PTC.

"Amtrak and freight railroads in this country share the same 24-7 focus on safe train operations and together are working to advance safety in all aspects of rail transportation in the United States,” said Hamberger.

Boardman was among several to testify at yesterday's hearing, which Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) called to review the May 12 derailment that caused eight passenger fatalities and 200 injuries.

Shuster said he called the hearing to review what actions Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) took on passenger-rail safety before the accident occurred, particularly on severe curves.

Also at the hearing, Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) questioned FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg about the FRA's choice to prioritize spending on projects such as the California high-speed rail initiative over PTC implementation.

Under federal law, PTC implementation will be required on 60,000 miles of track by year's end. Most railroads will not meet the deadline. The FRA estimates full PTC implementation will cost $14 billion.

Denham asked Feinberg if the FRA would commit to divert funding to other priorities in order to more quickly implement PTC in California. She agreed to look into the possibility.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is continuing its investigation into the accident's cause. Although its final determination will likely take up to a year, early indications were that speed was a factor. The train's engineer was traveling more than twice the posted speed limit when the train reached a sharp curve and derailed. An NTSB member indicated the next day that had PTC been operating on the segment of track, the derailment likely would not have occurred.

At the hearing, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said investigators were studying the engineer's cell phone records to determine whether he was using his cell phone at the time of the accident. The engineer survived, but has said that he does not remember what happened after the crash.

Also testifying yesterday was Dennis Pierce, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and president of the Teamsters Rail Conference, who called for timely implementation of PTC along with a requirement that all trains be operated by a minimum of two-person crews.

"PTC is no silver bullet," Pierce said. "It's not designed to prevent every accident and any claim that PTC renders the second crew member unnecessary is just not true."

In support of two-person train operations, Pierce urged the committee to take up H.R. 1763, a bill that would require two crew members inside the locomotive cabs of freight trains and light engines used in connection with the movement of freight.

He also asked the Committee to reconsider the Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981 (NERSA), a federal law that eliminated the second crewmember on Northeast Corridor passenger locomotives.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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