NTSB releasing Amtrak crash investigation documents, findings to follow in spring

On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will release its investigation docket on last May’s Amtrak 188 crash.

Read NewsWorks coverage of the docket here.

The docket contains the complete corpus of NTSB’s evidence on the case, including its 90-minute interview with the train’s engineer, Brandon Bostian. It will not, however, contain any conclusions on why the train was going 106 mph when it derailed, instead of the 50 mph it should have been going as it entered the Frankford Curve.

A final determination of probable cause and any safety recommendations will have to wait until May when NTSB is expected to release its official findings on the crash, which killed eight and injured more than 200.

NTSB’s Robert Sumwalt said soon after the accident that a safety system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) would have prevented the derailment.

After a deadly train crash on Southern California’s Metrolink in 2008, Congress required all intercity commuter railroads, and freight lines that share lines with commuter trains, to install PTC. The December 31, 2015 deadline to do so was extended three years back in October. At the time, only three railroads—Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, SEPTA, and Metrolink—said they were on pace to make the original deadline.

Amtrak made that deadline, implementing PTC on most of its Northeast Corridor before the year let out. Amtrak spokesman Craig Shulz told PlanPhilly last November that the railroad had spent $110 million since 2008 installing PTC. A section in Connecticut, owned by the Metro-North Railroad, does not yet have PTC activated on it. According to a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) report last August, Metro-North expects to have PTC ready later this year.  

PTC uses a mix of GPS and radio to pinpoint train locations and automatically slow or stop trains that are going too fast.  The system requires new equipment on both the trains and along the tracks.  

In a statement provided to PlanPhilly, Amtrak said it is scheduled to activate PTC on the 104-mile Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg in February.

February is also when SEPTA expects to activate PTC on its regional rail lines. SEPTA General Manager Jeff Knueppel said the authority was ready to implement PTC, but was waiting on final regulatory approval of its PTC system from the FRA. So far, all of SEPTA’s trains but “four or five” have been retrofitted with PTC equipment, said Knueppel.

SEPTA’s PTC activation will occur in three phases, each expected to take a week or two, said Knueppel. The first phase will activate on the single-track lines first: the Warminster, Doylestown and Cynwyd lines. After that, SEPTA will deploy PTC on two-track service lines, and then, finally, on multi-track services.

SEPTA has spent $330 million installing PTC.

Other railroads in the region are expected to take longer. NJ Transit “is fully committed to meeting” the extended 2018 deadline spokeswoman Jennifer Nelson told PlanPhilly back in November.

UPDATE (Feb. 3, 2016 at 10:32 a.m.): Three of the largest freight railroad operators in the United States will not make the 2018 deadline, the Associated Press reports. Canadian National Railway, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern all now say they will not deploy PTC until 2020. CSX and Norfolk Southern own nearly all of the freight rail lines in the Greater Philadelphia region; Conrail, a joint venture between CSX and Norfolk Southern, owns the remaining lines.

CSX had previously told PlanPhilly that it would deploy PTC technology across all of its 15,000-mile network by 2018 and would be fully operational by 2020. CSX operates around 25 trains a day through Philadelphia. Freight railroads lobbied Congress extensively to extend the original RSIA deadline. 

Commuter railroads sometimes lease rail lines from freight operators. Until recently, SEPTA leased a stretch of CSX’s lines for its West Trenton service. SEPTA built its own, parralel line to separate from CSX as part of its PTC implementation. 

PTC is only required on heavy intercity commuter railroads. Streetcars, subways and light rail systems aren’t required to install the technology. PATCO, which doesn’t fall under the RSIA mandate, has a similar, if more rudimentary safety system, known as Automatic Train Control.

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