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AAR expresses solidarity with Amtrak after congressional hearing

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Following the June 2, 2015 oversight hearing of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee on Amtrak’s May 12 fatal derailment of Northeast Regional Train 188 (which according to many observers had very little to do with discussing the accident itself and its possible cause—see David Schanoes’ blog), Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger commended Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman “for reinforcing his passenger railroad’s firm commitment to safety.”

“Amtrak and freight railroads in this country share the same 24/7 focus on safe train operations and together are working to advance safety in all aspects of rail transportation in the United States,” said Hamberger. “There is no greater priority than safety for the nation’s railroads and the terrible tragedy . . . is a stark reminder that we must continually work to make our systems even safer. To that end, freight railroads continue to commit massive resources toward new equipment, materials, research and technology in order to maintain and modernize the 140,000-mile freight rail system.”

Hamberger, on behalf of the freight rail industry, also commented on some issues raised during the hearing:

Positive Train Control: “America’s freight rail industry remains fully committed to PTC and is working all out to have a fully interoperable, nationwide PTC system tested and safely operating, from coast to coast on more than 60,000 miles of track. While the freight rail industry has spent more than $5.2 billion on PTC and progress has been substantial, much remains to be done before this new system, which has been an unprecedented technical and operational challenge, is installed, tested and fully operational across the U.S. Freight railroads have retained more than 2,400 signal system personnel to implement PTC and are in the process of training up to 100,000 employees on using the new system. Freight railroads have installed or partially installed PTC equipment on more than 50% of the 23,000 locomotives that require the new gear, have deployed 50% of the 34,000 required wayside units and have replaced more than half the required signals and mapped most of the track that will be equipped with PTC.”

Inward facing cameras: “The freight rail industry supports Amtrak’s announcement that it is moving forward with inward facing cameras in its passenger train locomotives as Class I freight railroads have been proceeding with installing this technology since 2013. Inward facing cameras can advance safe train operations and the position of freight railroads is consistent with the National Transportation Safety Board’s 2010 recommendation.”

Crew size: “There is no justification for a legislative or regulatory requirement regarding crew size for freight railroads. For all Class I freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada, it is standard practice to operate trains with two persons in the cab. Class I freight railroads do believe, however that technology like PTC could provide redundant layers of safety, though the freight rail industry will continue to work with rail labor under the existing collective bargaining framework to identify when the presence of PTC allows for such a discussion without degrading safety.”

Following is the full text Joe Boardman’s written testimony before the House T&I Committee:

“At Amtrak, we are committed to safety and we operate a safe railroad. The Northeast Corridor in particular has an excellent safety record, and this accident is so shocking because it’s so unexpected. People have come to accept that the NEC will deliver them safely to their destination, because we have such a good record of doing so. Our last fatal accident on the NEC occurred 28 years ago, and since that time, Amtrak trains operated by Amtrak-trained crews have carried millions of people in safety. We have redundant systems designed and built into everything, and they protect every movement—but at the end of the day, it is people who operate these trains, and people make mistakes. For 28 years, we have operated safely, without an accident-related passenger fatality, and we are now incorporating the lessons of this tragic failure.

“The NEC’s safety systems are the best in the country. In no other place is a comparable volume of traffic moved with such a solid record. In addition to a thorough training, oversight and coaching system for our crews, we have a layered signal system that provides trains with multiple levels of protection.

“There is a trackside signal system to warn crews of the presence of trains, so that the danger of collision is minimized. There is an alerter system to ensure that engineers are awake and attentive, and to stop the train if they are not. There is a cab signal system to ensure they receive the appropriate signal warnings, regardless of the time of day or the weather. There is an automatic train control system (ATC), to ensure compliance with (and acknowledgement of) the signals, and to stop the train if the crews fail to acknowledge or comply. Finally, in places, there is a system called the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), Amtrak’s Positive Train Control (PTC) system to ensure that engineers maintain the appropriate speed limits, and to stop the train if they fail to comply with the speed limits. That is in service from New Haven to Boston and at points between Washington and New York where trains exceed 125 mph, and it has been installed on the rest of the Amtrak owned and operated NEC and should be operational in time to comply with the Federal statutory mandate of Dec. 31, 2015. No other Class I railroad in the United States is as far along in installing PTC as Amtrak.”

“These systems exist to backstop the engineers and train crews who are ultimately responsible for safe movement of our trains. Our engineers and conductors are required to pass an extensive training program, reviewed and approved by the FRA, which is designed to equip crews with the necessary skills, experience, knowledge and outlook to operate a train successfully. Crews are expected to develop a very high level of familiarity with the route, and to know where they are at all times and under all conditions—including bad weather and the hours of darkness. Probably millions of train movements—not just Amtrak, but SEPTA services—have negotiated the curve at Frankford Junction safely since Amtrak took over the NEC in 1976. Our system is predicated on a program that develops competent operating personnel through a lengthy process that combines on-the-job practice with classroom instruction, and backs the people up with a solid system of multi-layered safeguards.

“It works because, generally speaking, we have put together a safety system that weaves a tight net—or even a series of layered nets—with each layer guarding against the possibility of a failure that the previous layers don’t catch. Nothing is impossible, but we try to guard against the full range of contingencies. We rely on these layered and redundant systems, but there’s one thing that we have never been able to completely overcome, and that is the risk of human error. There is always a risk of a gap in even the most tightly woven net.

“The Train 188 derailment revealed one such hole in our safety net, and in the weeks since the derailment, many people have raised a seemingly simple question: Why didn’t the track where the accident occurred have some kind of safety feature installed, to trip the signals and force the engineer to slow the train?

“This is the right question to ask, and I am going to address it directly today while first providing you the necessary background information to understand the answer.

“In 1990, an Amtrak train derailed on a sharp curve at Back Bay Station in Boston and collided with an oncoming MBTA train. That derailment was caused by an engineer failing to slow a train before a curve. Shortly thereafter, industry regulators and operators reviewed the NEC and looked for other places where the approach speed of a train was greater than speed at which the train might derail in the curve—in other words, where a train could derail if an engineer failed to slow it down. At those points we used a modification to the ATC system to install a ‘code change point’ to force engineers to slow down in advance of the curve. The [westbound] tracks at Frankford Junction were one such place.

“The derailment speed at Frankford Junction is 98 mph. [Eastbound] trains approach that curve at 80 mph, while [westbound] trains approach at 110 mph. So in short, when a train approaches from one direction but doesn’t slow down, there is no risk of derailment; but if when a train comes from the other direction and doesn’t slow down—for whatever reason—there is a risk of derailment. Thus, we applied the modification to the [westbound] tracks so that the trains approaching from the east at speeds of 110 mph would receive a signal indication in the cab just before the curve, forcing them to slow to 45 mph so that they could pass through the curve safely at 50 mph. The [eastbound] track did not have the same protection installed, because the approach speed was 80 mph, which was slow enough that a train could round the curve at that speed without derailing if the engineer failed to slow down. At that time, the notion that an engineer might actually accelerate into the [eastbound] curve was not a circumstance we anticipated, and thus we didn’t mitigate for it.

“It was a reasonable decision reached by reasonable experts under reasonable circumstances. And since this and similar code change points were installed in 1991, the application of this policy successfully prevented overspeed derailments throughout the NEC for about 25 years. That clearly changed on May 12. The proper response now is for us to figure out what happened, and to narrow or eliminate the gap so that this accident cannot happen again. We know that the full implementation of ACSES later this year will be a major step forward in this regard. Until it is fully in service, we are taking several steps to ensure the safety of our trains and passengers.

“Immediately after the Train 188 accident, we installed a code change point on the south side of Frankford Junction, to ensure that trains cannot enter the curve at speeds above 45 mph, just as they do from the other direction. We are now looking across the NEC for other spots where a similar vulnerability might exist, and we will take the same action at those points, pending the introduction of ACSES, to ensure that we close any windows of vulnerability that may exist. Most important, we are doing everything we can do to hasten the installation of ACSES across the NEC.

“As I noted, ACSES is today in operation on the entire North End of the NEC between New Haven and Boston, but installation on the South End is not yet complete. The law requires us to complete our installation prior to Dec. 31, 2015, and we will push the work to ensure that the system is fully—and safely—operational as soon as possible. In the meantime, we are reviewing our system to look at curves to ensure that we are doing everything we can to be sure we’re making adequate provisions for the safety of the public. We are talking to our train crews, to ensure that everyone is fully focused on safe operations. Managers are out keeping an eye on operations. People at every level are looking out to ensure that our operations are safe and reliable in the coming weeks and months. We will also be installing inward-facing video cameras in our locomotive fleet, to allow for more effective oversight and monitoring of crew performance and provide a better record of engineer actions and communications.

“The most important thing we can do to improve safety is to complete the work of installing PTC on the NEC. We were the first railroad to implement PTC in America, and we’re still far ahead of the rest of the industry. My belief in the importance of PTC predates my arrival at Amtrak. As the Federal Railroad Administrator, I worked hard to secure the passage of the law requiring PTC installation on the railroads. I still believe that the single greatest contribution that my generation of railroaders can make to the industry is to implement PTC as rapidly as possible. We at Amtrak are working to do that, and we’re fortunate to have some of the nation’s leading experts on PTC leading the process. I have confidence in them, and in our company—and I promise you that by the end of the year, this system, which will dramatically enhance safety, will be complete and in operation on the NEC.”

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