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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Amtrak Crash: Available Technology Could Have Saved Lives

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It is the second time in two years that a passenger train traveling well above its speed limit has derailed, causing numerous injuries and deaths, and the nation’s deadliest train accident in nearly seven years.

Although the investigation is ongoing into what caused the recent Amtrak train derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Amtrak Train 188 was traveling over 100 mph before it ran off the rails along a sharp curve where the speed limit is just 50 mph. According to Amtrak, the train was en route from Washington to New York with 238 passengers and five crew members listed aboard. More than 200 people were injured and seven passengers have been reported dead. Parts of the damaged cars were so badly mangled that firefighters had to use hydraulic tools to rescue people trapped inside. Many of those injured remain in the hospital with nearly a dozen in critical condition. The engineer said he “has absolutely no recollection of the incident or anything unusual” and “no explanation” for what caused the crash. Police have obtained his cell phone to determine whether the engineer was distracted at the time of the accident. They have also taken blood samples, although the engineer stated he has no history of a medical condition.

The NTSB said they will be looking at all the facts – condition of the track and train, whether the signals were operating correctly, and “human performance.” No matter what caused the derailment, it is believed that had a safety system called positive train control (PTC) been installed on that stretch of the track, the fatal accident could have been avoided. In fact, the absence of this technology has come up repeatedly, most recently the December 2013 derailment of a Metro-North commuter train in the Bronx that killed four people and injured dozens.

Positive train control knows the speed limit on every stretch of rail, so if a train is going too fast for whatever reason, it slows the train down. To do that, the system must be installed on both the train and the route. Amtrak Train No. 188 had it, as well as parts of its rail network in the Northeast Corridor, but the stretch where the derailment occurred did not. Investigators will be looking into why the PTC was not in service on the section of track where the accident occurred.

Railroads are under a congressional mandate to install the positive train control by the end of this year. Yet, Amtrak and other railroads are still behind schedule in rolling out this technology. Some of the industry has been arguing for an extension stating the project is unaffordable and needs more time to be refined. How many deaths does it take for stronger safety action?  Haven’t these recent fatal train accidents clearly demonstrated the need for positive train control? Let’s hope this latest incident makes it impossible for railroads to fight the 2015 PTC deadline.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.