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Home / News & Reviews / News Wire / NTSB calls on FRA, Amtrak to take advantage of PTC safety features (updated)

NTSB calls on FRA, Amtrak to take advantage of PTC safety features (updated)

By | September 30, 2021

Recommendation comes in report on fatal 2018 accident on Northeast Corridor

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Photo of three-track main line with illustration showing details of accident
Photo of three-track main line with illustration showing details of accident
A photo illustration shows the site where a track worker was struck by an Amtrak train in 2018. (NTSB: photo by Michael Hoepf; graphic overlay by Christy Spangler.)

WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board is renewing a call for Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration to end the practice of using watchmen to notify track worker of approaching trains in areas where positive train control offers additional safety features.

The recommendation comes in a report issued Thursday on the NTSB’s investigation of an April 24, 2018, accident in which an Amtrak watchman was killed in Bowie, Md., when he was struck from behind by a northbound Amtrak train while focused on the movement of a southbound MARC commuter train.

“More action needs to be taken to protect train crews, maintenance-of-way employees, and mechanical workers from getting killed or injured,” NTSB board member Thomas Chapman said in a press release. “We have found from our investigations that many of these accidents are, tragically, preventable.”

The investigation concluded that the probable cause of the accident was “Amtrak’s insufficient site-specific safety work plan for the Bowie project that (1) did not consider the multiple main tracks in a high-noise environment and (2) did not provide the rail gang watchman with a safe place to stand,” leading to him standing on an active track. The decision to use watchmen for worker protection rather than protection from PTC, which can automatically slow trains through work zones.

As a result, the NTSB has called on the FRA to prohibit the use of watchmen (or “train approach warning”) in areas with PTC; on Amtrak to modify its site-specific work plans to account for all hazards, including those in multiple-track work zones; and for Amtrak and all Class I railroads to end the use of watchmen during maintenance and inspection activities. It also reiterated a previous recommendation to assess risks for track projects and use that assessment to issue “significant speed restrictions” around projects with safety risks for workers, equipment, and the public. That recommendation was initially issued in a 2017 report on a collision between an Amtrak train and maintenance equipment on April 3, 2016, that killed two workers and injured 40 passengers [see “NTSB report: ‘Culture of fear’ present at Amtrak …,” Trains News Wire, Nov. 14, 2017].

Amtrak, in a statement Thursday afternoon, said it was working to address the NTSB concerns. “We appreciate the NTSB’s thorough report and we have already taken several steps to ensure this type of incident won’t happen again. The safety of our employees and customers is Amtrak’s highest priority. We are reviewing the report and recommendations and will look to implement reasonable actions to meet the intent of the recommendations and ensure the ongoing safety of our employees.”

— Updated at 2:45 p.m. CDT with Amtrak statement

5 thoughts on “NTSB calls on FRA, Amtrak to take advantage of PTC safety features (updated)

  1. So, an accident that occurred before full PTC implementation was supposed to use functions that PTC could provide to prevent death and injury? What exactly was the NTSB smoking when they made this recommendation, and did they bother to find out if those recommendations they made aren’t already in practice?

  2. From the NTSB report:
    “The tracks were equipped with Amtrak’s Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), a positive train control (PTC) technology used on Amtrak
    properties.” and its footnote #10.
    “10– Amtrak has activated the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) on the tracks it owns in the Northeast Corridor and on the Amtrak-owned portion of the Michigan line. ACSES, in combination with cab signaling, is a PTC cab-signaling system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, protect against overspeed, and protect work crews with temporary speed restrictions. It meets the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) requirements of a PTC system.”

  3. I had enough time to review both accidents. The common features are that both occurred on multiple main track lines (more than two), and that they involved MW operation occupying one of the internal tracks with the accident train on an adjacent track.

    Amtrak was deploying ACSES (the NEC version of PTC) on the NEC as soon as it was installed and tested.

    In the 2016 accident in Chester PA, an MW vehicle was working on Track 2 of 4. The NEC runs North-South there and tracks are nembered 1-2-3-4 from East to West. Thus, 2 track would be the Northward inside track. The MW vehicle had swinging equipment and at times needed to foul 3 track, the Southward inside track. There was some confusion at a shift change and MW crew lost fouling authority on 3 track. The Dispatcher cleared a Southbound passenger train on 3 track that struck the MW vehicle while it was fouling that track with 2 fatalities.

    In the 2018 accident the MW vehicle was working on track 2 of 3. There were 2 teams of watchmen, one facing North to warn of of Southward trains and t]one South for Northward trains. They are equipped with police whistles and Freon horns. [the watchmen date to shovel and lining bar days] The watchman was struck by the train he was supposed to be watching for. The Southward MARC train was the responsibility of the other watchman team.

    I fail to see how PTC, either ACSES or I-ETMS, could have detected either the fouling MW equipment or the watchman standing on a busy track looking the wrong way. Neither had a way to communicate its location with a PTC system. As you can see there was plenty of room for the watchman to stand West of 3 track.

      1. Yes, I can only infer that TSRs would be placed on all adjacent tracks to reduce speed through the work area.

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