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Rail News: Amtrak

Amtrak was close to turning on PTC, Boardman says


Amtrak was close to the testing phase of implementing positive train control (PTC) on track at the Philadelphia location of the fatal train derailment, Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman confirmed in a news conference yesterday.

"We're very close to being able to cut it in," Boardman said, according to a report in The New York Times. "We've got to do testing on MHz radios. We will complete this by the end of the year."

However, funding shortfalls and bureaucratic delays slowed the technology’s deployment, the Times article quoted officials who were briefed after the accident as saying. Because the government failed to provide railroads with access to radio spectrum necessary to make the system work, Amtrak had to negotiate for privately owned airwaves, according to the article.

But in a post on Amtrak's blog, Boardman said that Amtrak "takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event," and is fully cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation.

"Our goal is to fully understand what happened and how we can prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future. We will also continue to focus on completing positive train control implementation in the Northeast Corridor by December of 2015," he wrote.

The death toll was revised yesterday to eight people after another victim was found beneath the rubble at the crash site. Amtrak Train 188 derailed Tuesday night shortly after it left the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia bound for Penn Station in New York City. The train consisted of the locomotive and seven passenger cars, all of which derailed.

The NTSB has not yet determined the derailment's cause, although speed appears to be a factor. The train was traveling more than 100 mph when it approached a sharp curve, where the speed limit is 50 mph, and then derailed. On Wednesday, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said PTC's speed-control and crash-prevention technology would have prevented the accident had PTC been deployed on the track.

Congress mandated in 2008 that railroads implement PTC by Dec. 31, 2015, but did not provide the funding for railroads to do so.

APTA: Commuter railroads committed to PTC

Yesterday, American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Melaniphy said that commuter railroads are "100 percent committed” to implementing PTC, but challenges remain. He disputed news media reports that said PTC technology is "fully developed" and ready to be deployed. The technology has been under development since the law was passed, and is still being developed, he said.

"PTC is a communications intense technology which requires radio spectrum to transmit data between trains and communications towers. Acquiring radio spectrum is a ... significant challenge in implementing PTC," Melaniphy said in a prepared statement. "APTA has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate free radio spectrum for commuter railroads as a public safety priority, yet so far, it has refused to do so. Congress has not requested the FCC to do this either, despite the fact that they mandated the implementation of this safety technology."

As of April, commuter railroads have spent a total of $950 million of their own funds on PTC, he said. Half of those railroads have indicated they've deferred other capital projects as a result.

"A recent survey conducted by APTA of the commuter-rail industry in the United States shows that at least $3.48 billion is needed to implement PTC nationally. This figure is considered a conservative estimate and it does not include the cost of buying radio spectrum," Melaniphy said.

Whether Congress will extend the PTC deadline is in question. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) yesterday reiterated her call for railroads to deploy PTC as soon as possible. Measures to extend the deadline are pending in Congress. Feinstein, who was an original sponsor of the PTC legislation passed in 2008, has been opposed to extending the PTC implementation deadline except under limited, case-by-case circumstances.

"The railroad industry has been lobbying furiously to delay the mandate, and the Senate Commerce Committee has put forward a bill granting a blanket extension for five to seven years. In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy," Feinstein said in a prepared statement.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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