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The idea of talking trains may have originated with Thomas and Friends, but if tracks and trains could communicate, how drastically could safety on America’s railroads improve?  It wasn’t until 2008 when the Rail Safety Improvement Act was sanctioned that Positive Train Control (PTC) became a requirement to protect riders and communities from train derailments and crashes. However, over the years the deadline for PTC installment has been extended over and over, from December 2015 to December 2018 with an ability to extend to 2020. In light of the recent derailment of Amtrak 501 in Washington state, it’s time to take a hard look at PTC and its ability to protect riders’ safety.

On December 18, Amtrak 501 was the first passenger train operating the Point Defiance Bypass, a state/federal funded project to create a direct route for trains in order to avoid a curvy and mudslide-prone waterfront route. This new route is mostly straight, but where it rejoins the main line the tracks flow into a S-curve with a bridge over I-5. This curve has a speed limit of 30 mph, and while Amtrak does not publicly report train speeds, the train’s speed was confirmed to be near 80 mph. Crashes such as these are categorized as “overspeed”, and while other factors could have been at play, the speed with which the train was traveling is the main cause for the derailment.

Overspeed incidents always bring PTC up to the surface, as PTC should protect against trains speeding into curves. PTC is an advanced system designed to automatically stop a train to prevent:

  • Train to train collisions
  • Overspeed derailments
  • Switch errors
  • Unauthorized train entry into work zones

PTC works by communicating specific logistics, GPS, speed, etc., between ground radio stations, locomotives, and a mission control office. For example, if PTC had been operational on Amtrak 501, an onboard computer system would have received and analyzed track data from ground radio stations along the route. This communication would have provided the engineer with advance warning of any movement authority limits, speed limits, and track conditions ahead. If PTC is fully deployed and operational and if corrective action is not detected within a set warning period, PTC then brings the train to a controlled stop without the engineer’s assistance.

PTC was installed on the tracks of this bypass, and had it been operational may have prevented this derailment, but PTC alone is not a catch all, nor is it foolproof. Stay tuned for the next post in this series where the technology behind PTC is explored, and the price tag explained.


Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of Amtrak 501. If you or a loved one has suffered due to a train collision or incident, contact a Virginia personal injury attorney to discuss what legal recourse you may have for your pain and loss.

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for Jay Walser

    Mr. Curcio,

    Your understanding of how PTC works is flawed. I base this comment on my 7 years of experience working on PTC projects.

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