Deadly Philadelphia Amtrak Train Crash Likely Preventable with Use of Technology

As news of the deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia reverberates around the nation, there are still more questions than answers about what may have caused the train to rapidly accelerate from approximately 70 mph up to 106 mph before entering the sharp curve at Frankford Junction.  Investigators are still trying to determine what contributed to this crash: human error, equipment malfunction, or other factors altogether.  What is becoming clear is that this wreck could likely have been avoided by the use a technological advance called Positive Train Control (PTC).

The technology to implement PTC has existed for decades. As early as 1990, 25 years before this crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) listed PTC as among its “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.”[1]  Positive Train Control has the following characteristics:

  • Train separation and collision avoidance, and
  • Speed enforcement [2]

Essentially, PTC has the ability to take control of a train from a conductor to prevent operator errors (or other equipment failures) that may lead to an accident.  Using a GPS system coupled with radios and computers, Positive Train Control monitors the locations of trains and intervenes in their operation to prevent them from running into each other, crashing due to excessive speed, and to keep trains from entering areas on the track where maintenance is underway.[3]  The technology was designed to eliminate the human error element from train crashes. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has estimated that up to 40% of train accidents in the United States occur at least in part due to human error.[4]

In the case of the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, Positive Train Control may have been able to prevent the train from accelerating dramatically as it approached the 50 mph curve at Frankford Junction.  NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt minced no words on the subject, “[w]e are very keen on positive train control.  [If such a system had been in operation], this accident would not have occurred.”[5]  The Washington Post has reported that Positive Train Control was installed in the area of this accident, but that the system was not activated because Amtrak claimed that more testing was needed.[6]

The NTSB has reported that up to 29 other railway accidents in the U.S. could have been prevented by the use of Positive Train Control systems.  ABC News has reported that sixty-eight people have died and more than 1,000 more have been injured in those 29 crashes, which does not include the latest figures from the Philadelphia crash.[7]  In 2013, a train derailment in the Bronx that killed four passengers may have been prevented by this technology.  The conductor in that crash fell asleep and failed to slow the train down as it entered a curve at with a 30 mph speed limit at over 80 mph.[8]

In 2008, Congress passed a law mandating the implementation of Positive Train Control by the end of 2015.  After years of complaints by Amtrak and other operators about the expense of the system, a bill has been proposed in the Senate to grant Amtrak and other carriers until 2020 and beyond to fully implement the system.[9]  Former NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman has said publicly, “If we do not implement technology such as PTC to prevent these events, we will continue to see them for the foreseeable future.”[10]  It seems clear that we can expect even more deadly crashes such as the one in Philadelphia if this technology is not implemented.

About the Author: Scott Fitzgerald is a personal injury attorney practicing with the Allen Law Firm. His practice areas include car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, and drunk driving accidents. Scott was recently named one of the National Trial Lawyers Top 40 Under 40 in Virginia.