Am­trak crash hear­ing fo­cuses on safe­guards

In­ves­ti­ga­tors say a pos­i­tive train con­trol sys­tem could have pre­vented deaths. ‘Cam­eras don’t slow or stop trains. Pos­i­tive train con­trol does.’

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Tina Susman tina.susman@la­times.com Twit­ter: @tina­sus­man

NEW YORK — At least 69 peo­ple have died since 2004 in train crashes that could have been pre­vented if tech­nol­ogy that over­rides hu­man er­ror had been in­stalled, fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors said Tues­day at a con­gres­sional hear­ing into last month’s deadly Am­trak de­rail­ment.

Much of the Wash­ing­ton hear­ing by the House Com­mit­tee on Trans­porta­tion and In­fra­struc­ture fo­cused on pos­i­tive train con­trol, the tech­nol­ogy long ad­vo­cated by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board. But speak­ers, who ranged from the NTSB chair­man to a union leader, also ad­dressed en­gi­neer fa­tigue, pri­vacy is­sues aris­ing from calls for in­ward-fac­ing cam­eras on lo­co­mo­tives, and the need for fund­ing to im­prove Am­trak’s aging in­fra­struc­ture.

Am­trak Pres­i­dent and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Joseph H. Board­man’s voice broke at times as he re­peated his vow to have pos­i­tive train con­trol in­stalled on the en­tire Am­trak sys­tem by the end of the year, in ac­cor­dance with a fed­er­ally man­dated dead­line. Board­man also ac­knowl­edged that Am­trak had un­der­es­ti­mated the po­ten­tial for speed­ing on the curve where Am­trak Train 188 derailed May 12, killing eight pas­sen­gers.

The rail­road had a sys­tem in­stalled on the south­ward track to slow trains if they were go­ing into the curve at a dan­ger­ously high speed. The sys­tem was not on the north­ward track, be­cause Board­man said the track’s de­sign made it less likely a train trav­el­ing north could de­rail there.

“It was a rea­son­able de­ci­sion reached by rea­son­able ex­perts un­der rea­son­able cir­cum­stances,” Board­man said.

The sys­tem has been in­stalled on the north­ern track as a re­sult of the crash, which oc­curred when the train en­tered a curve zoned for 50 mph while trav­el­ing more than 100 mph.

Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors have yet to de­ter­mine why the train was go­ing so fast, a point that ran­kled some com­mit­tee mem­bers.

“I think this com­mit­tee ex­pects an­swers. I think the fam­i­lies are owed an­swers,” Rep. Jeff Den­ham (R-Tur­lock) said, not­ing that it had been three weeks since the NTSB an­nounced how fast the train was trav­el­ing.

The NTSB says in­ves­ti­ga­tors still are study­ing the cell­phone records of en­gi­neer Bran­don Bos­tian to de­ter­mine whether he was dis- tracted in the sec­onds be­fore the de­rail­ment. Bos­tian’s at­tor­ney, Robert Gog­gin, has said his client’s phone was turned off and packed away in ac­cor­dance with rail­way rules.

NTSB Chair­man Christo­pher A. Hart called for rail­ways to in­stall in­ward-fac­ing cam­eras in lo­co­mo­tives to help in crash in­ves­ti­ga­tions, but Den­nis Pierce, the na­tional pres­i­dent of the union rep­re­sent­ing lo­co­mo­tive en­gi­neers, said such cam­eras would in­fringe on work­ers’ pri­vacy while do­ing noth­ing to pre­vent ac­ci­dents.

“Cam­eras don’t slow or stop trains,” he said. “Pos­i­tive train con­trol does.”

Pierce also called for Am­trak to beef up staffing to en­sure each lo­co­mo­tive has two crew mem­bers.

‘Cam­eras don’t slow or stop trains. Pos­i­tive train con­trol does.’

— Den­nis Pierce, pres­i­dent of lo­co­mo­tive en­gi­neers union

Alex Wong Getty Images

AM­TRAK Pres­i­dent Joseph H. Board­man is among those who tes­ti­fied be­fore a House com­mit­tee.

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