University of Delaware railroad expert Allan Zarembski says a spate of recent deadly Amtrak crashes is unusual, and that a crash in South Carolina over the weekend appears to have been preventable.
Zarembski joins Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the recent incidents.
“It’s certainly unusual. If you look at sort of the 10-year history of fatal crashes, you’ll see they’re few and far between. What makes this more unusual further is that the causes are very dramatically different. For example, the [train carrying Republican members of Congress in Virginia], that from the information that’s available has all the appearances of being a grade-crossing accident where there’s a real possibility that the dump truck went and tried to get around the gate. You can argue that that is really beyond the control of the railroads. In fact, if you look at railroad accident statistics, almost 20 times as many people are killed or have serious injuries where a car tries to beat the train or go around the track or go around the gate, as to the more traditional type of train accidents where there’s a derailment or a collision.”
On how positive train control technology factors into the South Carolina and Washington state crashes
“Those two accidents both have the, at least at this stage of the game, the appearance of being preventable by positive train control, yes. Positive train control is designed to prevent certain classes of accidents, to include the over-speed accident going around the curve, which was the Washington state accident, and the collisions going onto the wrong track or going through a signal or going through an improperly set switch, provided the switch is within the positive train control network. So again, it depends on the specifics of the implementation.”
On why positive train control hasn’t been implemented on more tracks across the country
“The issue here is in both the Washington state accident and in this accident that just happened this weekend, the tracks were not Amtrak tracks. The train was the Amtrak train, but the tracks were owned by another entity — in the weekend crash with [freight railroad] CSX, and in the Washington state crash, that particular stretch of track where the accident happened was former Burlington Northern Santa Fe that was sold to the state of Washington commuter agency. But in both cases, Amtrak did not own the track. There are 200,000 miles of track in the United States. The vast, vast, vast majority of it is privately owned by freight railroads who operate freight. Amtrak only owns the track in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York, plus a small section of track in Michigan, and my understanding based on the official reports is Amtrak has implemented positive train control on the places where they run the trains and on the track themselves.”
On whether there ought to be a change in the way tracks are owned and operated
“No, because right now the government mandate is that positive train control be in place by the end of the year, on both the private railroads and on Amtrak. So in fact the solution, if you wanna put it that way, is already in process. The problem is it hasn’t been implemented yet because the deadline for implementation is Dec. 31, 2018, the end of this year.”