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Positive Train Control Technology Could Be A Solution For Amtrak After Recent Crashes


This past weekend, there was another fatal crash involving a passenger train. It was the third since December. As the investigation got started, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board said the U.S. needs more of what's called Positive Train Control, or PTC. The board says this will ensure train safety, and if it had been in place this past weekend, it might have helped. Joining us to talk about safety and trains is William Vantuono. He's the editor-in-chief of Railway Age and joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks for joining us.

WILLIAM VANTUONO: You're very welcome, glad to be here.

CHANG: So Positive Train Control is a phrase that's been thrown around a lot. What exactly is it?

VANTUONO: It is a safety overlay system on the existing signaling and train control system in the U.S. that is designed to prevent accidents caused by human error.

CHANG: OK, but how? It's - that stops the train immediately when...

VANTUONO: Yeah. Well, there are four parts to PTC. It's designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments - or excessive speed derailments - unauthorized incursions onto track maintenance work zones and movement of a train through a track switch that has been left in the wrong position, which is what happened with the Amtrak Silver Star wreck.

CHANG: And what are the limits of PTC, as you call it? I mean, give me an idea of what kinds of accident it cannot prevent.

VANTUONO: Well, putting it into context, PTC-preventable accidents represent about 4 percent of all railroad accidents that occur - that have occurred. So what we're talking about here are accidents that are caused by human error. Overspeed condition where there is no enforcement, where - for example, with the wreck of the Amtrak train 501 in December, the Cascades train, the train entered a 30-mile-an-hour curve at close to 80 miles an hour. The engineer claims that he just basically missed the sign. There were signals, warning signs, and he kind of blew through them, which indicates inattention or distraction. And a Positive Train Control system would have sensed that the train was traveling too fast, that it was approaching the curve at too fast a rate of speed to break safely and then would have applied the brakes.

CHANG: How much of the train activity in the country would be directly affected by Positive Train Control?

VANTUONO: Approximately 25 percent, which is a significant chunk, yeah. And we're looking at around 60,000 route miles of railroad.

CHANG: And it would be primarily for passenger trains.

VANTUONO: Yeah, passenger traffic and, in terms of freight, hazmat traffic - chlorine, crude oil, ethanol, things that can catch fire or explode.

CHANG: I know you attended a meeting yesterday for the Association of American Railroads about Positive Train Control. Did you get a sense of how likely is that PTC will get up and running anytime soon?

VANTUONO: By the end of this year, by law, slightly over 50 percent of PTC territory or route - in terms of route miles - must be implemented, up and running. All hardware needs to be installed for the entire system. All radio spectrum needs to be acquired. And all employee training must be completed. So what this means is that two years following this year's deadline, the end of 2020, all testing will be completed and the entire PTC system will be up and running.

CHANG: William Vantuono is editor-in-chief of Railway Age. Thanks for joining us.

VANTUONO: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASSIVE ATTACK'S "MONTAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.