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NTSB rails against PTC implementation delays

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. Credit: John Gallagher/FreightWaves

A year to the day from a fatal railroad accident in South Carolina that could have been avoided using automatic braking technology, the nation’s top transportation safety official criticized the railroad industry for dragging its feet on putting the technology in place.

“These events, like the 150 or so before it, are accidents that are PTC [positive train control] preventable,” said National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt, speaking today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

“PTC’s been mandated by Congress, but there’s been delay after delay in fully implementing this life-saving technology. Each day we go without PTC we’re at risk for another PTC-preventable accident.”

Sumwalt and fellow NTSB board members were at the Press Club to unveil the agency’s 2019-2002 Most Wanted List of top 10 transportation safety improvements on which it looks to make substantial progress over the next two years. PTC has figured prominently on the list for years.

“Since 1969, we’ve investigated 150 PTC-preventable accidents that have caused 303 fatalities and 6,800 injuries,” said board member Jennifer Homendy. “That’s not acceptable. The risk for a PTC accident is the same 50 years ago as it was when we investigated the accident in South Carolina. That’s the concern going forward.”

In 2008, Congress mandated that railroads implement PTC by the end of 2015. Because of the lack of progress, that deadline was extended to the end of 2018. In June last year, BNSF applied for a two-year extension to December 31, 2020, claiming that while it was ready for the mandate, it couldn’t become inter-operable with other railroads due their lack of progress. All the major freight railroads followed suit throughout the rest of last year.

According to data released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) at the end of December, only four of 41 rail lines – three regional passenger railroads and one freight-hauling short line – have certified that they’ve fully implemented PTC.

When asked of the potential for more extensions after 2020, “certainly we would urge that that not happen,” Homendy responded. “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. From our perspective, it needs to be addressed very quickly.”

Issues affecting trucking and highway safety also figured prominently on NTSB’s list, including eliminating distractions, ending alcohol and other drug impairment, reducing fatigue and increasing the use of collision avoidance systems on all new highway vehicles.

Homendy pointed out that while DOT currently has requirements in place for urinalysis and blood testing, “there are other methods that should be used, including hair follicle testing,” she said, which supports positions taken by the American Trucking Associations and the Trucking Alliance to mandate hair follicle testing.

Sumwalt also confirmed that there were 97 accidents or crashes that his agency was not able to initiate an investigation due to the government shut-down – asserting that in some cases there could have been critical perishable evidence lost forever, preventing the agency from accurately determining the probable cause of the accident.

“The only consolation I’ve ever been able to offer [grieving family members] is that it’s our commitment to try to find out what happened so people don’t have to go through what they’re going through,” Sumwalt said. “But because of the shutdown, we possibly will not have those answers they need, and that in itself is tragic.”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.