Is Amtrak missing the big picture on PTC and safety?

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, July 13, 2018

‘Safety is always the first priority.’ This phrase, or some variant of it, is drilled into the psyche of every railroader, and for good reason. Every other goal, cause and criterion should always take a back seat to safety. But there is such a thing as losing sight of the proverbial forest for focusing too much on individual trees when it comes to safety, and it is possible to overreact to safety lapses. I fear that Amtrak is falling into both of these traps based on its approach to positive train control and related matters in light of the fatal accidents in December in DuPont, Wash. and in February in Cayce, S.C.

Notice painted on a Metrolink locomotive that it is PTC-equipped. Seen at Anaheim Regional Transit Intermodal Center in Sept. 2016. Photo by Xnatedawgx / Wikimedia Commons.
Traveling on a train that is protected by PTC is, of course, preferable to traveling on one that is not PTC protected. But even on a non-PTC-equipped train, a passenger is, statistically, many orders of magnitude safer than he or she would be in a car. The most recent study, conducted by a Northwestern University researcher in 2013, found the rate of passenger fatalities on trains to be 0.43 per billion passenger-miles from 2000 to 2009, while the rate for automobiles was 7.3 fatalities per billion passenger-miles.

Thus, travelers become less safe when they choose to drive instead of taking the train when changes to train service make it less attractive. So the kind of actions Amtrak is considering in the name of safety wind up making travelers less safe overall. Such changes include truncating or discontinuing a route, temporarily or permanently replacing train service with motorcoaches, reducing speeds so as to noticeably lengthen the travel time, and reducing train frequencies. 

The federal PTC mandate means that it will be illegal for Amtrak to operate trains without PTC protection over most of its network after January 1 of next year. The negative safety consequences of losing train service for lack of PTC are the same regardless of whether or not the law requires it on a given segment, but the law ties Amtrak’s hands on the stretches where it is required. However, the passenger carrier risks applying too strict a standard on the significant chunks of its network that the law exempts from the PTC requirement for good reason, and where Amtrak is perfectly within its rights to keep running without PTC in place after the deadline. 

Congress and federal regulators consider it safe for passenger trains to operate without PTC on line segments where there is little traffic and/or other safety technology, such as the Santa Fe’s cab signaling with Automatic Train Stop, is in place. Yet the way Amtrak officials have discussed their approach to these portions of the system leads one to believe that they are averse to running trains without PTC, even where it is not required and not really necessary.

Photo by Geof Sheppard / Wikimedia Commons, Jan. 2014.
In one case — the PTC-exempt segment of the Southwest Chief route between Dodge City, Kan. and Albuquerque, where Amtrak is virtually the only user — the railroad is proposing permanently replacing the train with an overnight motorcoach on that segment, connecting to daytime Chicago-Dodge City and Albuquerque-Los Angeles trains. Not only would this force the states to cover the operating losses of both day trains, as they would fall under the 2008 law’s 750-mile threshold, but it would make the majority of the city pairs between which the Chief’s passengers travel much less attractive by train plus bus, pushing many into cars instead.

To be fair, intercity bus travel’s safety record is comparable to that of intercity passenger trains, at 0.11 fatalities per passenger-mile. And, to be fair also, fatality rates are not the only nor necessarily the best yardstick for safety — but this is the only statistic that is routinely measured and easily comparable across travel modes. But in any case where Amtrak resorts to ‘bustitution’ instead of running trains over PTC-exempt track, the bigger safety danger is that passengers will choose to drive instead of subjecting themselves to a long bus ride and having to connect between buses and trains on what should be an all-train journey.

In another case, Amtrak is reportedly investigating the possibility of rerouting the California Zephyr between Denver and Salt Lake City through Wyoming, because the segment of the ex-Denver & Rio Grande Western through Grand Junction is PTC-exempt due to low traffic volume. While the Wyoming route would cut the travel time by over three hours, it would take away one of the train’s major draws — one of the most scenic stretches of railroad over which Amtrak operates, along with direct service to tourist destinations in the Rockies like Glenwood Springs and Rocky Mountain National Park.

There are several other parts of the national train network where loss of service for lack of non-mandated PTC — the most likely scenario given Amtrak and states’ lack of means or willingness to pay for PTC installation — would have a similar negative safety outcome. These include the entire Downeaster route north of Haverhill, Mass., the Vermonter route north of Springfield, Mass. and the segment of the Cardinal route between Culpeper and Clifton Forge, Va. The very marginal safety improvement from installing PTC on these lines would not be worth the significant expense.

Amtrak says it will conduct a detailed risk assessment of each of these operations to determine whether or not to continue running without PTC. Each occurrence of a PTC-preventable tragedy undoubtedly ratchets up public pressure not to continue operations without protection. But the railroad’s decision makers must not lose sight of the big picture, which is that having a train (where it is legal to run one in the absence of PTC) is far safer than not having one, and having trains that are slower or less frequent also does a disservice to overall safety.

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