BOSTON (CBS) – The deadly derailment in Washington is raising new questions about a federally mandated safety feature on the nation’s railways.
Investigators say speed was a factor in Monday’s crash. According to the train’s black box, it was traveling 80 mph when it derailed, well above the 30 mph speed limit at that location.
A critical safety feature known as Positive Train Control (PTC) could have prevented the disaster, but it was not activated yet.
PTC is a safeguard against human error, relying on GPS satellites, radio towers and grounds sensors to monitor a train’s speed and location. It is intended to prevent train-to-train collisions and high-speed derailments.
If the system detects a problem, on-board computers kick in to slow down a train or bring it to a stop.
Federal investigators have previously said PTC could have prevented some of the nation’s worst rail disasters, including a 2008 collision in Los Angeles that killed 25 people, and the 2015 derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that accounted for eight deaths.
Despite an initial federal mandate to install the safety feature on all railways by 2015, the MBTA commuter rail system still has a couple years to go before PTC is up and running.
Why the delay? According to state transportation officials, it all comes down to money. Congress passed an extension in 2015 because so many cash-strapped transit agencies were behind schedule.
“The common thread in all these crashes is that PTC is an unfunded mandate,” said Marc Ebuña, president of Transit Matters, a non-profit policy advocacy group. “There has been a significant funding block for commuter rail networks trying to implement this, while at the same time addressing other capital improvement and maintenance needs.”
Earlier this month, MBTA leaders finally closed on two federal loans totaling $382 million that will guarantee funding to complete the project.
Of the 394 miles of track in the commuter rail system, only 38 are currently PTC operational: the shared track of the Northeast Corridor Providence line operated by Amtrak.
The technology requires 188 radio towers. As of late October, only 15 had been installed.
The MBTA plans to have all the equipment installed by the end of 2018. If it meets that goal, it will secure another federal extension to get the entire $459 million PTC project operational by the end of 2020.