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New Technology Could Stop Deadly Train Crashes. So Why Hasn't It?

“We consider it an angel on our shoulders out there on the track,” said one railroad engineer.

With another deadly train crash making headlines, the need for new railway safety measures seems more pressing than ever.

An Amtrak train crashed into a stationary freight train in Cayce, S.C., on February 4, killing two Amtrak employees and injuring over 100 passengers. That wreck comes just two months after an Amtrak train derailed near DuPont, Wash., killing 3 people and injuring more than 80 others.

The system — which relies on GPS, wireless radio, and computers — can automatically slow and stop a train if it detects the train is going too fast or could get into an accident. Human error accounts for about 40 percent of train accidents, CNN reports, and positive train control was designed to provide an extra set of eyes, so to speak.

“We consider it an angel on our shoulders out there on the track, and it’s our backup and our safety net,” former railroad engineer John Hyatt told CNN. If an engineer doesn’t see signs to slow down, for example, PTC “will begin applying the brakes on the train to get it down to that speed which is required, or stopping the train,” he added.

The train that crashed in South Carolina hadn’t been outfitted with PTC, according to the NTSB. The technology was installed on the track segment in Washington where the train derailed in December — the train traveling at 80 MPH in a 30 MPH zone — but it wasn’t operational yet. CNN reports Amtrak has installed PTC on 71 percent of its locomotives and 67 percent of its track.

Congress initially required railroad companies to install PTC everywhere by December 2015, but some of those companies — facing high costs and technological issues — threatened a shut-down unless they got an extension on that deadline. Congress acquiesced and set a new deadline for December 2018, with extensions to 2020 available if certain requirements are met.

NTSB board member T. Bella Dinh-Zarr told CNN positive train control can’t prevent every accident — including instances in which cars illegally cross tracks, for example — but it would prevent “certain types of derailments [and] overspeed accidents, as well as incursions into work zones.” Officials with the NTSB also said PTC might also have prevented the fatal derailment in New York City in 2013 and the one in Philadelphia in 2015.

It’s not all bad news, however. NBC News reports the rate of Amtrak train accidents has decreased since 2000. “The accident trend downward [for Amtrak] is definitely there, and, of course, positive train control will help eliminate a lot of these class of accidents: either the overspeed or the collision-type accidents,” Allan Zarembski, director of the University of Delaware’s Railroad Engineering and Safety Program, told NBC. And PTC will be a focus of a February 15 meeting of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

Plus, as former NTSB investigator Russell Quimby told NBC News, train travel is still one of the safer modes of transport. “Even though we’ve had this recent number of Amtrak accidents recently, relatively speaking, passenger trains are really quite safe,” he said. “Compared to cars, on land, trains are the best thing to be in in a collision.”

Cover image via Supannee_Hickman / Shutterstock.com