Tag Archives: Northeast Corridor

Two months since Amtrak 188 derailed, what’s changed and why big problems remain: ‘It’s actually cheaper to kill people’

Repost from BillyPenn.com

NTSB_2015_Philadelphia_train_derailment_3
Philadelphia Amtrak 188 derailment. NTSB

Two months since Amtrak 188 derailed, what’s changed and why big problems remain: ‘It’s actually cheaper to kill people’

By Anna Orso, July 7, 2015, 9:00 am

In the two months since Amtrak 188 derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring hundreds, the train giant has said that it’s making a number of changes to ensure better railroad safety. But is it really doing much beyond what it was already supposed to before the crash?

That depends on who you ask. Amtrak says it’s made a number of technological changes in wake of the crash to improve safety features. However, that admission came after the National Transportation Safety Board basically said the crash could have been prevented if Amtrak had it’s stuff together.

The major feature on railroad safety advocates’ list for decades is a way to automatically slow down trains on certain segments of track. Called Positive Train Control technology, federal regulators had mandated that all passenger train companies have it installed by the end of this year. The NTSB said this would have prevented the train, operated by engineer Brandon Bostian, from hitting 106 mph as it flew around a rated-for-50-mph curve in Philly.

Amtrak will be done installing PTC by the end of December, thus making the deadline and becoming the first “Class 1″ railroad company to do so. Spokesman Craig Schulz says the company is in the process of putting in “Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement Systems” to ensure trains are operated at safe speeds along the Northeast Corridor, spending more than $110 million since 2008 to install PTC.

The company also is quick to point out that in the immediate aftermath of the crash, it installed (read: fixed) a “code change point” in the signal system on the eastbound tracks just west of the Frankford Curve, meaning that trains traveling east from Philadelphia to New York approach the curve at 45 mph in accordance with the speed limit there. They’re not so quick to point out that this technology was previously required.

Amtrak, according to Schulz, has also committed to installing inward-facing video cameras in its fleet of ACS-64 locomotives in service on the Northeast Corridor by the end of this year and will comply with additional Federal Railroad Administration regulations released earlier this year. Cameras like this would have shown what, for instance, Bostian was doing as the train hit the curve at nearly double the recommended speed.

But the lawyers circling this case say these actions are a day late and a dollar short.

Bob Pottroff, a Kansas-based attorney who’s a railroad safety expert, is consulting with several of the personal injury lawyers who are representing victims in lawsuits against Amtrak and other parties. A number of those court actions have already been filed, including two of behalf of families whose loved ones were killed in the crash.

It’s expected the lawsuits against Amtrak will be consolidated, and the company will only be liable for a total of $200 million because of a cap put in place by Congress in 1997. This means that no matter how many people are killed or injured in a train crash, Amtrak will never be asked to pay up more than $200 million in total.

Pottroff thinks removing this cap would be the best way to get large railroad companies to stop dragging their feet on installing new and better technologies that he advocates should have been installed years ago.

“If you really want to scare the hell out of the railroad industry, the first thing to do is remove the damage cap,” he said. “They’re saying ‘we’re never going to have to pay more than $200 million,’ so any project that costs more doesn’t make sense.

“The failing state of our railroad infrastructure would probably cost closer to $200 billion to fix. It’s actually cheaper to kill people.”

And for Amtrak, someone has to be concerned about saving money. The transportation giant is staring down potentially massive cuts to its federal funding, after $270 million in cuts were approved by the House along party lines right after the crash. Democrats and safety advocates have rallied against slashing of funding.

Meanwhile, Amtrak is still focused on making train trips — especially along the Northeast Corridor which had 11.6 million riders in fiscal year 2014 — faster. Slowing down trains when they go around curves would counter those goals.

Pottroff said his fear is that Amtrak can make promises in wake of accidents, but he says the FRA hasn’t set up penalties for what could happen if the company doesn’t follow through with regulations in a timely manner. He says there aren’t any checks on the company.

“Nothing really has changed,” he said. “Until the FRA grows some teeth, they’re going to be a mouthpiece. We will go on hiding the ball on the real causes of problems until we have government oversight that is effective.”

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    Positive Train Control – background, progress, funding

    Repost from the Miami Herald

    Rail safety technology improvements delayed by cost, complexity

    Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 14, 2015
    Emergency personnel work at the scene of the deadly Amtrak train wreck Wednesday in Philadelphia. Federal investigators are trying to determine why the Amtrak train jumped the tracks in a wreck that killed eight people and injured dozens. Patrick Semansky – AP

    Most of the nation’s railroads will not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing collision-avoidance technology that could have prevented Tuesday’s deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

    Congress in 2008 required that railroads install positive train control by the end of this year, and although the rail industry has made progress on the $9 billion system, equipping 60,000 miles of track and 22,500 locomotives with the technology has proved to be complicated.

    The technology has to work across not only the seven largest freight railroads but also 20 commuter railroads, Amtrak and dozens of smaller carriers. It requires 36,000 wireless devices that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches.

    It also must work in densely populated regions where multiple rail lines intersect and are heavy with passenger and freight traffic, such as Chicago, Southern California, New York and New Jersey.

    “Each of these systems has to be able to talk to each other,” said Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.

    Even lawmakers who months ago wanted to hold the industry to the 2015 deadline have softened their position in recognition that the system simply won’t be ready.

    Hamberger told reporters Thursday that the industry needs another three years just to get the equipment installed, and two more to make sure it works. Of the 60,000 miles of track where the system is required, he said only 8,200 miles would be ready by year’s end.

    A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to complete the task. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the legislation that contained the 2015 deadline, said a five-year blanket extension was not the answer.

    “In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy,” she said in a statement Thursday. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis.

    The technology was not in place at the site of Tuesday’s derailment, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger railroad in the country. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that positive train control would have prevented Train 188 from approaching a 50 mph curve at more than 106 mph.

    Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was Amtrak’s first fatal accident on the Northeast Corridor since a January 1987 crash that killed 16 people. In that instance, positive train control could have stopped a freight locomotive from running past a stop signal into the path of the Amtrak train.

    The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. In January, the board included the technology on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. It did not endorse giving railroads an extension beyond December.

    Amtrak actually may finish its installation of the system on the entire 457-mile passenger rail corridor between Washington and Boston ahead of most railroads.

    “We will complete this by the end of the year,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia.

    The rail industry supports the Senate bill that would give the companies a five-year deadline extension, and even some of the industry’s toughest critics in Congress are prepared to give it more time.

    According to the Federal Railroad Administration, freight hauler BNSF and Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California, are positioned to meet the original deadline.

    An August 2008 collision near Chatsworth, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring positive train control. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train ran past a stop signal and into the path of a Union Pacific freight. According to the NTSB accident report, the Metrolink engineer, who was among those killed, was texting just before the crash.

    Another fatal crash, on New York’s Metro North commuter railroad in December 2013, renewed calls for positive train control. Four people were killed when a New York-bound train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The train was traveling 80 mph when it hit a 30 mph curve.

    Positive train control is designed to prevent a train from running a red signal or approaching a slow curve too fast. Accident investigators don’t yet know why Train 188 was going more than twice the appropriate speed when it derailed in Northeast Philadelphia, but they do know the accident was preventable.

    “The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install positive train control technology as soon as possible,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday.

    One thing Congress did not do when it required railroads to install the system was give them any money to do it. When asked Thursday how much the government had contributed to the freight railroads to assist with positive train control, Hamberger, of the Association of American Railroads, replied, “Zero.”

    President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes $825 million to help commuter railroads install the technology. The president’s 2009 economic stimulus provided $64 million to Amtrak for its installation. But that wasn’t enough, the railroad said in a report justifying its 2014 budget request.

    Overall, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install positive train control.

    “Additional funding to fully comply with PTC requirements is necessary,” Amtrak said.

    Richard Harnish, the president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group that advocates for passenger rail improvements, said in a statement Thursday that positive train control was delayed because Congress gave railroads an unfunded mandate.

    “Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system,” he said.

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      Amtrak provides crude oil train details states had withheld

      Repost from McClatchyDC
      [Editor: The author notes that this method of obtaining information on transport of crude by rail “only worked in the few places where Amtrak owns or controls track over which freight trains operate.”  – RS]

      Amtrak provides crude oil train details states had withheld

      By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, August 4, 2014
      US NEWS RAILSAFETY MCT
      Empty tank cars roll south along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor at Newark, Del., on July 28, 2013. The cars were unloaded at the nearby PBF refinery in Delaware City, Del., and are heading back to North Dakota for another shipment. (Curtis Tate/MCT)

      — Two loaded and two empty crude oil trains operate daily over Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in Maryland and Delaware, according a document submitted by the passenger railroad in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

      Last month, Norfolk Southern, the freight railroad that operates the crude oil trains, went to court in Maryland to block the state Department of the Environment from making the same information available to McClatchy and the Associated Press.

      The Amtrak document also contains some details of Norfolk Southern’s crude oil train operations in Pennsylvania. That state last month denied requests from McClatchy and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to provide information about the shipments.

      Dave Pidgeon, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, declined to comment.

      In May, following a series of derailments, fires and spills involving crude oil trains, the U.S. Department of Transportation required railroads to notify states about train shipments of 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude oil to help emergency responders better prepare for an incident.

      There is no federal law that shields the crude oil train information from public release. Nonetheless, railroads asked states to sign confidentiality agreements, and some states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, complied.

      However, other states, including California, Washington, Illinois and Florida, did not sign the agreements and have made the crude oil train details available to McClatchy and other news organizations.

      In Maryland, according to documents filed on July 23 in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, state Attorney General Doug Gansler’s office had voided the confidentiality agreements that a state official had signed. However, both Norfolk Southern and rival carrier CSX contested the attorney general’s ruling and sought an injunction to prevent the imminent release of the records.

      Pennsylvania is one of the largest single destinations in the country for Bakken crude oil by train. On Monday, McClatchy appealed the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s denial of an open records request for crude oil train details there.

      Amtrak owns or controls lines in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware that Norfolk Southern uses for freight. The national passenger railroad is subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

      According to Amtrak, Norfolk Southern’s crude oil trains operate over 21 miles of the Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger train route in the country. The crude oil trains travel between Perryville, Md., and Newark, Del., sometimes alongside Amtrak’s passenger trains. They also use a portion of a line east of Harrisburg, Pa., that Amtrak controls.

      The trains are generally 100 cars and weigh 13,500 tons loaded and 4,000 tons empty. By contrast, Amtrak’s flagship Acela Express trains include two locomotives and six cars, weighing a total of 624 tons.

      Freight trains commonly operate over the Northeast Corridor at night, but some run during the day. Amtrak restricts Norfolk Southern’s crude oil trains to 30 mph from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Overnight, the trains can operate at 50 mph.

      Norfolk Southern crude oil trains cannot exceed 135 cars on Amtrak lines.

      The Norfolk Southern trains supply the PBF Energy refinery in Delaware City, Del. The facility closed in 2009, only to be revived with rail deliveries of domestic crude oil.

      Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/08/04/235391/amtrak-provides-crude-oil-train.html?sp=/99/200/#storylink=cpy

       

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