UPDATE: Putting Profits Before People is the Real Tragedy

UPDATE (5/15/2015): Amtrak announced yesterday that it would have Positive Train Control up and operating on its heavily traveled Northeast Corridor routes before the end of the year. Amtrak officials also told members of Congress that Positive Train Control has been installed in the area of Tuesday's crash, but it was still undergoing testing and had not yet been activated. 


The eyes of the nation are still focused on the Amtrak disaster north of Philadelphia, and it is too early to know what caused the train to travel at such an excessive speed. But as we wait for the National Transportation Safety Board to provide details, a lifesaving bit of technology is gaining more attention. Called Positive Train Control, this technology allows on-board computers, track-side sensors, and remote computers to communicate with one another. When trains operate outside the bounds of safety – for whatever reason – they can be slowed remotely. Experts suggest that if such a system had been in place, we likely would have avoided Tuesday night’s tragedy.

Positive Train Control was one of several forward-looking safety provisions included in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), which the railroad industry supported. The act passed the House with 87 percent of members voting in favor of it. The Senate passed it unanimously, and President George W. Bush quickly signed it into law.

The RSIA gave the nation’s major railroads, including Amtrak and commuter railroads, seven years to implement Positive Train Control along their 60,000 miles of track. The technology would not only prevent accidents caused by excessive speed, but it would also prevent head-on collisions that occur when a switch is left in the wrong position.

Since the passage of the RSIA, many preventable accidents have occurred because implementation of Positive Train Control stalled. A year and a half ago, a Metro-North commuter train heading north out of New York City derailed after the engineer fell asleep at the controls and the train sped up to 82 mph while heading into a 30 mph curve. Four people were killed and 60 injured in that preventable tragedy. Three weeks ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state would get a $1 billion loan from the federal government to immediately implement Positive Train Control on both the Metro-North and Long Island Railway systems operated by the state.

Positive Train Control was to be fully in place by the end of this year, but almost as soon as the bill was enacted, industry started calling for more time. Railroad executives complain that the technology doesn’t yet exist to build out the system, yet significant installations have been made. Amtrak has done more than most, installing Positive Train Control on 400 miles of Northeast Corridor track both north and south of Tuesday’s crash site. The rest of the Northeast Corridor, including the stretch where Amtrak 188 left the tracks, is next up for the lifesaving technology.

Extending Positive Train Control throughout the U.S. rail network is expected to cost about $9 billion – slightly more than $1 billion a year in lifesaving, asset-protecting investments for an industry where the top four companies reported more than $15 billion in profits last year. The nation’s three largest railroads that are public companies (Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and CSX) reported paying their CEOs a combined $51 million.

Putting profits before people makes no sense morally. But it doesn’t make sense financially, either. Beyond the incalculable loss of life in the preventable tragedies in the Amtrak and Metro-North accidents, there is economic cost that occurs when rail lines are shut down for rescue, investigation, and clean-up. Experts estimate that the closure of the rail line between Philadelphia and New York that resulted from Tuesday’s Amtrak crash is costing the nation’s economy $100 million a day.

Dragging their feet and running out the clock in the face of lifesaving regulations is a part of standard operating procedure for America’s biggest, most prosperous corporations. Business executives do it because they know it works to boost their bottom lines. But we also know that this behavior – whether it comes to adopting the best technologies to protect us when we travel, or to protect the air we breathe and the water we drink – causes injuries, illnesses, and even premature death.

Prior to Tuesday’s tragedy, the Senate was poised to consider two different bills that would grant railroads extensions to implement Positive Train Control. The Railroad Safety and Positive Train Control Extension Act (S 650) introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) would grant a blanket 5-year extension for railroads to fully adopt the life-saving technology. The Positive Train Control Safety Act, introduced by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) which would grant railroads one-year extensions on a case-by-case basis, for up to three years.

Now is certainly not the time to be sacrificing public safeguards by putting profits before health and safety. How many more senseless deaths and injuries will need to occur before railroad executives get serious about doing everything they can to keep the public safe? Congress should stick to its year-end deadline and let the Federal Railroad Administration fine those that fail to meet them.

To Learn More:  

Can We Get Serious about Train Safety? Technology Could Reduce 40 Percent of Rail Accidents, CEG Blog, by Amanda Frank, March 24, 2015.

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very true chad Edward hatten