Former NTSB chair: Fatal wrecks will continue until PTC is done

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Deborah A.P. Hersman, former NTSB Chair
National Safety Council website
WASHINGTON — Tragic wrecks will continue until the railroad industry fully implements positive train control, says former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman.

In an interview with Trains News Wire, Hersman says the recent pair of fatal Amtrak wrecks are especially frustrating because they could have been prevented by positive train control, the safety technology meant to prevent head-on collisions and speed-related incidents.

In December, three people were killed when an Amtrak Cascades train derailed near Olympia, Wash., because it was going 80 miles per hour into a 30 mile per hour curve. On Feb. 4, two Amtrak employees were killed when the Silver Star collided head-on into a parked CSX Transportation freight train at Cayce, S.C.

“It’s very frustrating to see these events continue to occur,” Hersman says. “History just keeps repeating itself and we’re not learning from past mistakes fast enough to save lives.”

President George W. Bush appointed Hersman to the NTSB in 2004. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed the then 39-year-old to the board and made her chairperson, the youngest board member to ever hold that position. Hersman became chair less than a year after 25-people were killed in Chatsworth, Calif., when a Metrolink commuter train crashed head-on to a Union Pacific freight, which became the catalyst for Congress’ mandate that PTC be implemented nationwide. In 2014, Hersman became president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

Hersman says she first saw the need for PTC when investigating the collision of two Norfolk Southern freight trains in Graniteville, S.C., in 2005. Since then, the number of crashes that could have been prevented with PTC has continued to climb, says Hersman, most notably the wrecks of a Metro North commuter train in the Bronx, N.Y., in 2013 and Amtrak train No. 188 in Philadelphia in 2015.

The NTSB has been calling for the implementation of PTC since 1990.

“We’re going to continue to see these preventable derailments and collisions until PTC is fully installed,” she says.

Since PTC was first mandated in 2008, Congress has extended the deadline for its implementation once and now all Class I railroad mainlines that haul hazardous materials or routes with regularly scheduled passenger service have until Dec. 31 to get it installed, unless they have demonstrated enough progress, at which point they can apply for another extension until 2020.

Hersman says any additional Congressional extensions beyond 2020 would be disingenuous.

“We keep kicking the can down the road,” she says. “The pressure is on in the next 10 months because having PTC close to being installed is not close enough.”

Certain railroads have made great strides in installing PTC, including BNSF Railway. As of late last year, 89 percent of the railroad’s track that needs PTC had the technology installed and 97 percent of its locomotives had the technology in place. Hersman says BNSF did not delay its efforts to install PTC. She hopes that railroads that are behind in their installation work reach out to operators such as BNSF for help.

“Railroads like BNSF put their money where their mouth is and worked hard to get this done,” she says. “They should be commended for their work.”

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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