Rail safety can’t wait, no more delays

Published 11:25 am Thursday, December 21, 2017

Our hearts go out to victims of Monday’s horrifying Amtrak derailment in DuPont and to their families.

Perhaps one way to pay tribute to them is by promptly addressing the factors in this accident that could improve the safety of rail travel.

Although the NTSB investigation is just getting underway, some important questions must be answered by the public and private operators of passenger trains in Washington state and beyond.

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Amtrak Cascades Train 501 was going 80 mph into a 30 mph curve when it derailed Monday morning, strongly suggesting operating errors. This makes it eerily similar to a 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed 8 and injured 200, when a train entered a curve at more than twice the speed limit.

Safety equipment that could have intervened in both incidents — an automatic braking system — was installed on Cascades Train 501 but not yet operational.

Sound Transit, which owns the track segment and upgraded it with federal money passed through the state Department of Transportation, said the automatic braking system, known as positive train control (PTC), was scheduled to be operational in the second quarter of 2018.

It’s beyond disappointing that PTC wasn’t working before service began on this segment. Multiple parties share blame on this front.

Safety regulators have called for PTC systems for decades, but Congress and the U.S. railroad industry have been slow to implement this lifesaving technology.

Congress finally mandated PTC in 2008, after 25 people died in a California train accident that same year. PTC was required by the end of 2015. But after the rail industry struggled to finish the work on time, Congress relented and extended the deadline to December 2018.

Yes, PTC systems are expensive and complicated, but the public pays a far greater price when proven, effective safety systems are delayed.

Gov. Jay Inslee should demand that PTC systems be activated as soon as humanly possible on all passenger trains in Washington state. He has little authority over BNSF and Amtrak but can apply pressure and ensure that state and regional rail operators expedite their contributions.

Then there is a design question: Does it make sense to launch fast rail service on a segment of track with an S-curve that requires trains to slow from 79 mph to 30 mph as they snake across an old bridge crossing Interstate 5?

State and regional rail operators must provide a fuller explanation of why the bridge at DuPont wasn’t realigned as part of the upgrade to 79 mph service. They should reassess the state’s entire rail system for tricky segments that add risk and complicate efforts to increase speeds and frequency of passenger trains, and then explain how they will be mitigated.

Monday’s deadly accident also highlighted the city of Lakewood’s earlier warnings about safety on this new route at rail crossings and the city’s difficulty getting the state and Sound Transit to address its concerns.

This should give pause to cities in Greater Seattle being pressured by rail advocates to expedite permitting of trains through their communities.

As the investigation and grieving continues, policymakers need to show the public that they’re doing everything possible to improve the safety of passenger rail service. Further delays are simply unacceptable.

They must assure the public that safety is paramount both in the design and operation of passenger-train service — including current Amtrak and Sound Transit trains, light rail in the Puget Sound region and 200-mph passenger trains proposed between Oregon and Canada.

The Seattle Times