amtrack (philadelphia 2015) wreckage

*WASHINGTON, D.C. —  Yesterday’s 100-mph (in a 50-mph zone) Amtrak crash, like the 2013 82-mph (in a 30-mph zone) commuter train crash, was caused by negligence in failing to have effective speed control systems – not necessarily the Positive Train Control [PTC] which Congress mandated by 2016 – says an MIT-educated engineer-inventor turned law professor.

The Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) Speedline has used Automatic Train Control (ATC) technology, which prevents a train from exceeding the speed limit at any given portion of its tracks, since 1970.

But it’s a complicated and expensive system which utilizes devices along sections of the tracks which transmit “cab codes” to antennas on the bottoms of train cars.  Although it’s sophisticated enough to permit varying the top speed depending on a variety of factors including how close the train is to a track switch, something much simpler would have prevented these two horrible crashes.

amtrack wreckage

“Automobile drivers, for less than $100,  can purchase simple GPS-based navigation devices which tell them not only what road they are on, but also shows their current speed in different colors depending upon whether they are exceeding the designated speed limit for that section of road. Surely the same technology could be easily and inexpensively employed to prohibit a train from exceeding the speed limit on designated sections of tracks, and especially around sharp curves,” says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, noting that it’s easier to tell a train’s precise location and speed since it can go only on designated rails.

Banzhaf went on to say, “Today we have devices which can not only automatically control the speed of trucks, but can actually permit them to be driven on highways without the need for human drivers.  Similar devices could be used to control (or at least limit) the speed of trains.” He also pointed out that they could be far less sophisticated because they do not have to allow for highway lane changes, drivers who suddenly cut in front of trucks and other problems which occur on highways but not on train tracks.

Banzhaf added, “The fact that Congress has apparently given the railroads until the end of this year to install PTC does not mean that Amtrak isn’t negligent for failing to have it in place on this busy rail corridor now.  It’s reasonably well established that federal law sets only minimum standards, and that juries can still find that a defendant who did not violate a federal standard is nevertheless negligent or otherwise at fault, based upon the risks of an accident compared with the costs of preventing it.”

Trucks use computerized devices to control their speeds, even though the process is far more complicated than with trains, and a much smaller number of people are likely to be injured than when a truck – as compared with a large railroad train – travels at an unsafe speed.

Banzhaf also pointed out that many railroads claim they cannot meet the federal PTC standard by the end of 2015, and will probably seek an extension until at least 2020.  But installing a simpler GPS system, like the kind already used in trucks and even on passenger cars, would be much less expensive, and would prevent these high-speed derailment problems.

John Banzhaf

John Banzhaf

JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D. Professor of Public Interest Law George Washington University Law School, FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor, Fellow, World Technology Network, Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) 2000 H Street, NW Washington, DC 20052, USA (202) 994-7229 // (703) 527-8418 @profbanzhaf