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‘Positive train control’ not activated at scene of derailment

LISTEN: Former NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker on train derailment

One factor that has garnered attention following Monday morning’s fatal train derailment near DuPont is the use of “positive train control” technology.

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Positive train control is a system designed to prevent accidents due to excessive train speeds. According to Amtrak President and Co-CEO Richard Anderson, the technology was not activated on the tracks where the incident occurred. KIRO 7 later clarified at the press conference that positive train control may not have been activated on the train while on the tracks.

The stretch of tracks are under the purview of Sound Transit. Positive train control technology was installed along the tracks in the Nisqually area in 2016, according to a Sound Transit representative.

It is not clear, however, if positive train control has anything to do with the derailment. Former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Mark Rosenker told KIRO Radio that the NTSB investigation likely won’t offer answers anytime soon.

“We don’t know what happened here,” Rosenker said. “We don’t know if it was equipment failure, or human failure, or if it was a combination of both … It will take about a year before they really understand exactly what happened here. If they see something glaring, if they see something which they need to announce right away and make a change, they will announce that.”

>> Train derails over I-5 near Dupont
>> Photos from the scene
>> Passenger describes train ride before deadly derailment

Positive train control

Positive train control uses sensors along the tracks that communicate with a computer system which then analyzes conditions. The computers communicate with trains and will give advanced warning of any issues. The system will activate brakes ahead of human response if needed.

NTSB helped pass legislation that requires rail companies to use positive train control. Sound Transit has installed Positive Train Control on portions of its tracks used for light rail and Sounder train service, including between Tacoma and Lakewood.

The technology is not used on this segment of rail lines under Sound Transit jurisdiction known as the “Point Defiance Bypass,” Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said during a conference call on Monday.

The tracks were previously owned by BNSF. Sound Transit’s passenger service — the Sounder train — does not use these tracks. Its transit service-only extends as far south as Lakewood, roughly 10 miles north of the train derailment. According to a Sound Transit representative, the agency completed installation of positive train control technology for “Nisqually track,” but it is unclear if that includes the Point Defiance Bypass.

Rosenker said that freight companies have pushed back against implementation of Positive Train Control. There was a deadline to implement the technology by 2015, but many companies did not meet it.

“The freight folks slow rolled the process,” he said. “It’s an expensive technology, and that’s probably why they were attempting to do that. They’ve gone to Congress so they don’t have to put in this technology until 2020, maybe 2022.”

In addition to preventing excessive speed incidents, Positive Train Control is also designed to prevent incidents relating to: train-to-train collisions; train movements through misaligned track switches; and unauthorized train entry into work zones. Only about 20-25 percent of the nation’s 62,000 miles of rail have positive train control, according to Rosenker. Amtrak, he said, only owns about 600 miles of track. It uses freight tracks for the remainder of its service.

The Point Defiance Bypass is available to Amtrak trains, freight, and military trains. A grant was recently used to upgrade the tracks and the work was overseen by Sound Transit. That work was completed in February 2017 and included: rebuilding all tracks, ties and signaling; rehab work on the bridge over I-5.

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