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Speeches

Testimony Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation United States Senate on Passenger Rail Safety: Accident Prevention and On-Going Efforts to Implement Train Control Technology
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH
Washington, kDC
6/10/2015

Good morning Chairman Thune, Ranking Member Nelson, and the Members of the Committee.  Thank you for inviting the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to testify before you today.

The NTSB is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident and significant incidents in the United States and significant accidents and incidents in other modes of transportation – railroad, highway, marine and pipeline.  The NTSB determines the probable cause of accidents and other transportation events and issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.  In addition, the NTSB carries out special studies concerning transportation safety and coordinates the resources of the Federal Government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters.

Since its inception, the NTSB has investigated more than 140,500 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents.  In addition, the NTSB has completed 553 major investigative reports in the areas of railroad, pipeline, and hazardous materials safety, including 150 accidents involving Amtrak.  On call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, NTSB investigators travel throughout the country and internationally to investigate significant accidents and develop factual records and safety recommendations with one aim—to ensure that such accidents never happen again.

To date, we have issued over 14,000 safety recommendations to nearly 2,300 recipients.  Because we have no authority to regulate the transportation industry, our effectiveness depends on our reputation for conducting thorough, accurate, and independent investigations and for producing timely, well-considered recommendations to enhance transportation safety.

The NTSB's annual Most Wanted List highlights safety-critical actions that the US Department of Transportation (DOT), United States Coast Guard, other Federal entities, states, and organizations need to take to help prevent accidents and save lives.  In January, the NTSB released its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements for 2015.  Each year, we develop our Most Wanted List based on safety issues we identify as a result of our accident investigations.  This year’s Most Wanted List includes “Implement Positive Train Control in 2015.”  As we pointed out:

Without Positive Train Control (PTC), real-world results have been tragic.  PTC is a system of functional requirements for monitoring and controlling train movements to provide increased safety.  While the NTSB has called for a system like this for over 45 years, it still has not been fully implemented in our commuter, intercity, and freight trains.  Without it, everybody on a train is one human error away from an accident.

Congress enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 [RSIA].  The Act requires each Class 1 rail carrier and each provider of regularly-scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service to implement a PTC system by December 31, 2015.  Progress is being made toward this lifesaving goal.  Metrolink became the first commuter rail system to implement PTC, when it began a revenue service demonstration on the BNSF Railway. This demonstration project is a step in the right direction, and Metrolink reports it will implement PTC fully throughout its entire system before the Congressionally mandated deadline.

It has been more than 45 years since the NTSB first recommended the forerunner to PTC.  In the meantime, more PTC-preventable collisions and derailments occur, more lives are lost, and more people sustain injuries that change their lives forever.

Yet there is still doubt when PTC systems will be implemented nationwide as required by law.

Each death, each injury, and each accident that PTC could have prevented, testifies to the vital importance of implementing PTC now.

For over 45 years, the NTSB has investigated numerous train collisions and over speed derailments caused by operational errors involving human performance failures. The NTSB attributed these human performance failures to a variety of factors, including fatigue, sleep disorders, medications, loss of situational awareness, reduced visibility, and distractions in the operating cab.  Many of these PTC-preventable accidents occurred after train crews failed to comply with train control signals, follow operating procedures in non-signaled or “dark” territories, observe work zone protections, or adhere to other specific operating rules such as returning track switches to normal position after completing their work at railroad sidings.

The first NTSB-investigated accident that train control technology would have prevented occurred in 1969, when four people died and 43 were injured in the collision of two Penn Central commuter trains in Darien, Connecticut.[1]  The NTSB recommended, based upon its investigation of that accident, that the FRA study the feasibility of requiring railroads to install an automatic train control system, the precursor to today’s PTC systems.[2]  The appendix to this prepared statement provides a chart showing that since the NTSB issued the first safety recommendation concerning train control technology in 1970, there have been more than 140 accidents across the country resulting in nearly 300 fatalities, more than 6500 injuries, and costing millions of dollars, that could have been prevented or mitigated by PTC.

Older cab signaling and speed control systems, such as automatic train control (ATC), have been in use for nearly a century.  In 1919, a system that could automatically stop a train in violation of a signal was tested on the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railway.  That same system was commercially applied to the Chicago and North Western Railway in 1923.  ATC is designed to enforce restrictive and stop signals by applying a penalty brake application to slow or stop the train to prevent or mitigate the results of train-to-train collisions, but ATC will not prevent all train collisions and was not designed to prevent over speed derailments.[3]  Although ATC is still in use today, the nearly century-old technology is obsolete and insufficient to provide an acceptable level of rail safety today.  PTC systems are designed to prevent derailments caused by over speeding and train-to-train collisions by slowing or stopping trains that are not complying with the signal systems, track authorities and speed limits.  They are also designed to protect track workers from being struck by trains by preventing train incursions into designated work zones and prevent train movement through misaligned switches.

Congress enacted RSIA in the aftermath of the 2008 accident in Chatsworth, California in which a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided head-on, killing 25 people and injuring 102 others.[4]  The NTSB’s investigation concluded that the Metrolink engineer’s use of a cell phone to send text messages distracted him from his duties and that PTC could have prevented or mitigated this accident.  This Committee’s report accompanying the Senate bill under consideration prior to the enactment of the RSIA also pointed to the NTSB’s investigation of a 2005 train derailment in Graniteville, South Carolina, in which an employee failed to properly line a track switch, resulting in the death of nine individuals due to the release of chlorine gas. [5] [6]

RSIA requires the implementation of a PTC system by December 31, 2015, on each line over which intercity passenger or commuter service is operated or over which poison- or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials are transported .[7]  Several rail carriers have stated that they will not meet the 2015 deadline, and we know that Congress is considering extending the PTC implementation deadline.  We urge Congress not to extend the RSIA deadline and require full PTC implementation without delay.  NTSB accidents are filled with files containing PTC preventable accidents, and every day that PTC is delayed, the risk of a PTC-preventable accident remains.

The most recent PTC-preventable accident occurred last month on May 12, 2015, when Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed.  The accident train, operating northbound from Washington to New York, departed Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on time bound for New York’s Penn Station.  The train derailed while traveling through a four-degree left curve at Frankford Junction.  Maximum speed through the curve is 50 miles-per-hour (mph), but NTSB’s preliminary data analysis determined that moments before the derailment, the train was traveling at 106 mph when the engineer applied the emergency brake system.  Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured.[8]

Another PTC-preventable accident occurred on December 1, 2013, when a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx after entering a curve with a 30 mph speed limit at 82 mph.[9]  Four people lost their lives and 61 others were injured.  We determined the probable cause of the derailment was the engineer’s noncompliance with the 30 mph speed restriction because he had fallen asleep due to undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea.  A contributing factor was the absence of a positive train control system that would have automatically applied the brakes to enforce the speed restriction.

Other accidents that could have been prevented by PTC include:

  • In September 2010, near Two Harbors, Minnesota, human error and fatigue contributed to the collision of two freight trains, injuring five crewmembers.
  • In April 2011, near Red Oak, Iowa, fatigue contributed to the rear-end collision of a coal train with a standing maintenance-of-way equipment train, killing two crewmembers.
  • In May 2011, in Mineral Springs, North Carolina, human error contributed to the rear-end collision of two freight trains, killing two crewmembers and injuring two more.
  • In May 2011, in Hoboken, New Jersey, human error contributed to the collision of a train with the bumping post at the end of the track.
  • In January 2012, near Westville, Indiana, inattentiveness contributed to the collision of three trains, injuring two crewmembers.
  • In June 2012, near Goodwell, Oklahoma, human inattentiveness contributed to the collision of two freight trains, killing three crewmembers.
  • In July 2012, near Barton County, Missouri, human error contributed to the collision of two freight trains, injuring two crewmembers.
  • In May 2013, near Chaffee, Missouri, inattentiveness and fatigue contributed to the collision of two freight trains, injuring two crewmembers and causing the collapse of a highway bridge.
  • In December 2013, near Keithville, Louisiana, human error contributed to the collision of two freight trains, injuring four crewmembers.

Since 2004, in the 30 PTC-preventable freight and passenger rail accidents that the NTSB investigated, 69 people died, more than 1,200 were injured, and damages totaled millions of dollars.

Thus far, some PTC systems have been successfully deployed.  For example, one of the deployed PTC systems is the Amtrak Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES).  Amtrak has deployed ACSES along portions of the Northeast Corridor that are owned by Amtrak.[10]  ACSES, a transponder-based system approved by FRA, enforces maximum track speed limits, permanent and temporary speed limits, and positive stop at interlocking and controlled point signals displaying stop.  In addition, Amtrak has deployed the Incremental Train Control System (ITCS) on more than 60 route miles along Amtrak owned Michigan Line between Chicago and Detroit.[11]  ITCS has been in revenue service since September 2000.

Extending RSIA’s deadline may result in a patchwork of PTC systems in operation across US rail systems.  Without a fully implemented and PTC system, railroads that complied with the 2015 deadline would not be able to fully utilize their PTC functionality if they operate on track used by a carrier that has not met the law.

In February 2013, the NTSB held a forum called “Positive Train Control: Is it on Track?” in order to bring together a wide range of experts to examine the technological, regulatory, and operational status of PTC.[12]  Challenges hindering the full implementation of PTC were discussed, including cost, standardization of technologies, and availability of radio spectrum.  Despite these challenges, the NTSB believes it is crucial that the Congressionally-mandated goal of PTC by the end of 2015 remain in place.

Conclusion

Early forerunners of PTC have been in existence since the 1920s.  Yet, more than a decade into the 21st century, we are still hearing that PTC cannot be implemented this year--it is too costly and too difficult.  This type of response would not have been tolerated concerning automobile seatbelt or airbag technology, and it should not be acceptable here.  The NTSB strongly supports full PTC implementation without delay.  Many railroads that have made the difficult decisions and invested millions of dollars to implement PTC in 2015 should not be penalized for their leadership.  For each and every day that PTC implementation is delayed, the risk of a PTC-preventable accident remains.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.  I look forward to responding to your questions.


 

[1] NTSB, Penn Central Company, Collision of Trains N-48 and N-49 on August 20, 1969, Rpt. No. RAR-70-03 (October 14, 1970).
[2] R-70-020, Dec. 18, 1970.
[3] Penalty braking is a brake application that is initiated after the train engineer fails to comply with a signal or to acknowledge an alerter alarm.
[4] NTSB, Collision of Metrolink Train 111 With Union Pacific Train LOF65-12 Chatsworth, California September 12, 2008, Rpt. No. NTSB/RAR-10/01 (Jan. 21, 2010).
[5] S. Rpt. No. 110-270, accompanying S. 1889, the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2007, at 6 (March 3, 2008).
[6] NTSB, Collision of Norfolk Southern Freight Train 192 With Standing Local Norfolk Southern Train P22 With Subsequent Hazardous Materials Release at Graniteville, South Carolina, January 6, 2005, Rpt. No. NTSB/RAR-05/04 (Nov. 29, 2005).
[7] Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-432, § 104 (2008). 
[8] NTSB, Preliminary Report: Railroad DCA15MR010 (2015).
[9] NTSB, Metro North Railroad Derailment, Accident Brief No. RAB-14/12 (October 24, 2014).
[10] The area of track where the May 12, 2015 derailment occurred near Philadelphia is not yet equipped with ACSES.  Amtrak has indicated it expects  to have ACSES operational in this area by the end of 2015, if possible.
[11] See http://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0287.
[12]  Information concerning the NTSB’s PTC Forum on is available at http://www.ntsb.gov/news/events/Pages/2013_Train-Control_FRM.aspx