At a press conference in New Haven, Connecticut, on the 50th anniversary of a train accident that killed four and injured 43, National Transportation Safety Board Member (NTSB) Jennifer Homendy called for the full implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) by United States railroads. PTC is a computerized system designed to automatically prevent railroad accidents.
Homendy was joined by Senator Richard Blumenthal and other advocates for rail safety in urging railroads to commit to utilizing PTC. “In the past half century, the NTSB has investigated more than 150 PTC preventable accidents that have taken nearly 300 lives and injured about 6,700 others,” said Homendy. “The NTSB’s message is simple: no more extensions, no more excuses, and no more delays. Finish the job.”
On August 20, 1969, two trains collided head-on at full speed in Darien, Connecticut, after an engineer ignored an order to pull onto a side track. The incident led the NTSB to recommend PTC implementation for the first time.
“An investigation by NTSB immediately following the crash resulted in the first recommendation of PTC, a safety system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over speed derailments, switches left in the wrong position, and incursions into established work zone limits,” said Senator Blumenthal. “Now, 50 years later, PTC has yet to be fully implemented across the nation and is on the NTSB 2019-2020 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.”
PTC installation on American railroads was officially mandated by Congress in 2008, but the deadline for implementation has been repeatedly extended. With the addition of PTC to its Most Wanted List, the NTSB has indicated that no further extensions will be granted, and railroads need to be compliant by 2020.
Although most U.S. railroads have installed PTC on their track and locomotives, only 16% of Class I railroads, 19% of intercity passenger railroads, and 29% of commuter railroads have made their PTC systems compatible with systems operated by other railroads. Because passenger trains often operate on tracks owned by other railroads, a fully functional PTC system requires interoperability between tracks.
Since 1969, many American railroads have significantly improved the safety of their tracks and trains through PTC implementation, but it is important for the NTSB to continue to demand that the railroad industry prioritize safety over profits. “Today is about remembering Darien,” Homendy said. “And there’s no better way to put that memory into action than to complete the implementation of PTC.”