Politics

NTSB: Excessive Speed Caused Amtrak Crash, Easy Fix Ignored

Railroad Should Have Installed GPS Speed Control System; Not Wait For PTC 

A NTSB member has confirmed that the Seattle Amtrak crash which killed 3 people, and sent over 70 more to hospitals, occurred because – like several similar prior deadly crashes – the train tried to round a curve at about 80 mph despite a posted speed limit of only 30 mph.

Amtrak Crash
Image source: WSDOT via Twitter (screenshot)

But all of these crashes could have been prevented without waiting for PTC.

Following a series of accidents in which speed was a factor, an MIT-trained professor, who is also an inventor with two U.S. patents, has argued that trains should be using a simple GPS-based system to prevent excessive speeds, and not waiting for the delayed and expensive Positive Train Control [PTC].

The PTC system would have prevented unnecessary speed, but it is so expensive and complex that most experts says it will not be operational for many years, notes Professor John Banzhaf.

So high speed train crashes demonstrate the need now for a system to automatically limit trains to established safe speeds if the engineer for any reason fails to do so, especially if the fail safe system is one which is so simple that it can be installed long before any PTC system could become operational.

Rather than waiting for so-called positive train control [PTC] systems which may not be operational soon, there is a much simpler and much less expensive GPS-only speed control system for trains which could be put into operation much more quickly, and at only a fraction of the cost of PTC.

It is also so simple that its basic principle is already in use in millions of automobiles and trucks now on the roads, says this MIT-educated engineer and inventor now turned public interest law professor.

One reason that PTC is so expensive, time-consuming to establish, and difficult to install is that it is designed to do far more than the simplest but most vital task of keeping trains from exceeding the speed limit – e.g., also dealing with switches left in the wrong position, hijackings, natural disasters, etc.

It is therefore a very complex system which requires not just GPS units in each locomotive, but also many thousands of signaling devices along sections of about 140,000 miles of track which transmit cab codes to antennas on railroad cars.

Unfortunately, for PTC to work properly, there must be close cooperation and coordination between the many different entities which own the different tracks to which the devices are attached, and the owners of over 500 different railroad companies which may run on these many different tracks.

All of the devices must also be able to communicate seamlessly with each other, and much of the delay in installing the system has been caused by the need to unify dozens of different systems, obtain permission to use the radio frequencies necessary for the devices to flawlessly exchange information, and related coordination problems, says Banzhaf.

Yet there are simple navigational devices available today for less than $200 for automobiles and trucks which would keep trains from going too fast.  Their operation does not depend on any additional devices installed along tracks or highways, nor upon the type of radio communications PTC requires.

Since automobile¬† GPS units can show not only the car’s speed, but also the speed limit on that section of the road, they could also be mounted on each locomotive and prevent the posted speed from being exceeded – completely independent of the tracks on which they are traveling, and without the need for any other sensing devices, cooperation with other companies, communication between devices, etc.

From an engineering point of view, says Banzhaf, there is no reason why these car-type GPS control systems could not have be mounted on trains already, long before PTC could become operational.

After 2020, when the entire PTC system will hopefully be fully installed nationwide, the GPS-only systems installed earlier on the locomotives could simply be replaced, or both systems could be used in tandem in a “fail safe” mode so that the train can never go faster that either system will allow.

Waiting for PTC makes little sense and is costing many lives, says Banzhaf, noting that juries could be shown how many automobiles already has an inexpensive GPS navigation device which shows a driver when he is exceeding the speed limit established for any road upon which he is traveling.

Such units could easily be modified to not only signal when a railroad speed limit is exceeded, but to use the same electronic signal to also keep the locomotive from going any faster.

Doing nothing to prevent high speed accidents until a comprehensive but complicated and expensive system can be installed, and not using an existing system which can be installed at little cost and much more quickly, is irrational negligence likely to continue to cost dozens of lives and billions of dollars.

Not using an existing simple GPS-based automobile-type system on trains now because a much more complicated and expensive one might be operational in another few years makes as much sense as not installing a simple $100 backup-warning system on your automobile now because, by 2018, a more complex system which will also automatically park your car and perform many other functions might be available.

If you wanted to protect your home from burglars, would it not make sense to spend $50 on a deadbolt lock for your front door now, even if you can’t afford or can’t wait for a $5000 burglar alarm system which will employ dozens of sensors to give you even more protection many years down the road?

Many in Congress are apparently reluctant to spend billions more in taxpayer dollars for a system which is incredibly complicated – and therefore prone to errors and perhaps even more delays – but they have been led to believe that PTC is the only way to prevent high speed train crashes.

Since a viable, well tested, and much simpler and less expensive system already exists, and is already in use on hundreds of thousands of automobiles, those who oppose such expenditures now for a complete PTC system have a viable alternative they can mandate through legislative action.

The NTSB, instead of putting all of its eggs aimed at reducing high-speed train derailments and other crashes in one complex, expensive, and only-far-in-the-future basket, should instead also be urging railroads to install simple GPS devices – similar to those already in use in millions of automobiles – until the installation of a unified PTC system can become operational on all of the nation’s railroads, Banzhaf urges.

JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.

Professor of Public Interest Law

George Washington University Law School,

FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,

Fellow, World Technology Network,

Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH),