WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board took a victory lap last week over the implementation of positive train control, the landmark safety system that it first recommended after the head-on collision of two Penn Central commuter trains in 1969.
“Over the next five decades we investigated one crash after another that could have been prevented had PTC been implemented,” NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said on the safety agency’s webcast on Thursday. “In total we investigated 154 accidents that took the lives of 305 people and injured 6,883 others.”
Former NTSB Chairman James Hall said it took a “tombstone mentality” to prod Congress into action and to move the rail industry forward, particularly after the 2008 collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight killed 25 people in Chatsworth, Calif.
But the NTSB figures significantly understate the extent of the train collision problem — as well as the rail industry’s efforts to dramatically reduce the number of main line collisions before PTC was fully implemented last year.
In 1975 alone, U.S. railroads experienced 244 mainline train collisions, according to data from the Federal Railroad administration’s Office of Safety. That single watershed year represents 41% of the 588 mainline collisions that occurred over the 45 years through 2020, FRA data show.
The number of main line train collisions fell to 100 in 1985 and 77 in 1995. Then came the biggest decade of improvement: From 79 mainline train collisions in 2005 to 19 in 2015. Last year, according to preliminary FRA data, there were four mainline collisions.
In all, the number of mainline collisions fell 91% between 1975 and 2018, the year in which railroads were required to have all PTC hardware installed. The number of overspeed train derailments, which PTC also is designed to prevent, were reduced over that period as well.
“It’s a good news story,” outgoing FRA Administrator Ron Batory says of the long-term trends and the implementation of PTC, which was completed last month.
Prior to PTC, railroads were able to significantly reduce train collisions by eliminating train orders, improving locomotive engineer training and certification, instilling more disciplined operations, and by adopting smaller crew sizes, Batory says.
“With or without PTC, railroad operating practices have come a long way,” Batory says. “The numbers speak for themselves. And now that we have PTC there’s further risk reduction.”
Batory says the rail industry in coming years likely will improve the protection PTC offers crews, passengers, and the public by making the technology more comprehensive and more robust.
The last fatal accidents that would have been preventable by PTC, according to the FRA, occurred in 2018. They are:
— The June 5, 2018, rear-end collision between a BNSF Railway intermodal train and a rail train near Truxton, Ariz., which killed a Herzog employee on the rail train.
— The Oct. 4, 2018 rear-end collision of two Union Pacific trains on Sherman Hill near Cheyenne, Wyo., which killed two crewmen.
— The Nov. 30, 2018 death of a welder struck by a CSX Transportation freight train in Estill, S.C.
The Feb. 4, 2018, collision of Amtrak’s Silver Star with a CSX freight train in Cayce, S.C., due to a misaligned switch, also would have been prevented by PTC. But at the time of the wreck, which killed two Amtrak crewmen and injured more than 100 passengers, the signal system had been shut down to permit the installation of PTC equipment.
In 2019, there were two non-fatal collisions that FRA listed as PTC preventable, including the sideswipe collision of two CSX Transportation trains in Carey, Ohio, on Aug. 12, and the rear-end collision of two Norfolk Southern trains on Nov. 8 in Hempfield Township, Pa.
Batory says future versions of PTC should include the ability to prevent rear-end collisions that occur at restricted speed, as was the case in the BNSF wreck in Arizona and the NS accident in Pennsylvania.
PTC, which is active on nearly 58,000 route-miles across the U.S., is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into established work zones, and movements of trains through switches left in the wrong position.