CHICAGO – By mid-day Thursday, at least seven people were dead with more than 200 injured, in the wake of Tuesday’s Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia.
Perhaps the least-publicized part of the first findings announced yesterday by Robert Sumwalt, the lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, was where he told national media that he was certain the tragedy would have been avoided had Positive Train Control been in place along the stretch of track from which the train had derailed.
“Based on what we know right now,” Sumwalt told reporters, cameramen and women, and television anchors from all across America, “we feel that had such a system been installed on this section of the track, this accident would not have occurred.” Yet the focus of media coverage for the rest of the day was on the 106-mile-per-hour speed that the train was traveling, and on whether the engineer was responsible for the tragedy.
Positive Train Control (PTC), which is in place along other parts of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, involves using GPS to slow a train for any reason that causes it to breach a particular speed limit on a particular stretch of track, including a driver emergency, a driver mistake, a switch left in the wrong position, hijacking, or a major storm. The PTC system was not in place along the track in Philadelphia.
Seven years ago, the U.S. Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, requiring railroad operators to have PTC in place everywhere by December 2015. Already existing budget cuts have slowed Amtrak’s ability to comply with that mandate, the company says, and just hours after the tragedy, Republicans in Congress voted to slash yet another $250 million from Amtrak’s funding.
The House Appropriations Committee voted entirely along party lines to cut 20 percent of Amtrak’s budget. House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan lied when, after that, he said that Congress had already funded implementing the safety system it had mandated in 2008.
He went on Fox TV saying that Congress should not “rush to judgement and try doubling the size of government programs” in response to what he said was human error.
When asked by Fox News whether Congress had actually provided the money for PTC he lied by saying, “Yes!” He then hedged a bit, saying, “Yeah, we already passed an Amtrak funding, an authorization bill earlier this year. And the appropriations process is working its way through right now.”
In addition to finally admitting that the funds had not been made available to Amtrak, Ryan also did not mention that the funds that are still in the pipeline do not include money that Amtrak had requested precisely for installation of the PTC system. Further underlining the falsehood of Ryan’s claims is the filing only two weeks ago of a bill in the Senate, delaying the PTC implementation deadline from December, 2015 to 2020. Were Ryan’s claims true, such a filing would have been entirely unnecessary.
Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP