Amtrak's Missing Technology

Technology can keep trains from speeding.

Photographer: NTSBgov via Getty Images

An "absolute, disastrous mess" is how Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter described Tuesday's Amtrak derailment, in which eight passengers were killed and more than 200 injured. And though it will be some time before its causes and consequences are fully assessed, one point is already clear, and one question already imperative: Technology exists to prevent speeding trains. Why wasn't Amtrak using it?

Federal investigators say the train was cruising at 106 miles per hour on a curve with a speed limit of 50 mph, and that the engineer applied the emergency brakes too late. For years, regulators have prodded the railroad industry to adopt something called positive train control, a communications system in which a train's speed and location can be monitored and its brakes automatically applied when it exceeds certain speed limits or comes too close to other trains.

After a deadly crash in 2008 in which a train operator blew through a red light while sending text messages, Congress required that the system be put in place by the end of 2015 for routes that carry passenger traffic or dangerous materials.

Yet with the deadline quickly approaching, Amtrak still doesn't have this system on all parts of its busiest route -- the Northeast Corridor, which carries roughly a third of all its passengers -- and it was unavailable on the stretch of track where the accident occurred Tuesday. Far cheaper and more ubiquitous technology that simply detects excessive speeding also seems to have failed.

There's no small hypocrisy here. Amtrak -- with federal oversight and roughly $1 billion annually in public funding -- has failed to fully implement positive train control even while Congress has forced freight-rail companies across the country to do so on their own dime (or billions of dimes, as it were). In Congress, meanwhile, a House committee on Wednesday rejected a proposal to spend $825 million to help railroad companies pay for the required upgrades. Even by congressional standards, that defies reason.

Politics aside, the sooner this system can be put in place across the entire Northeast Corridor, the better. 

In the longer term, the goal should be to move U.S. passenger rail toward full automation. Technology exists to safely operate trains with little or no human intervention: Around the world, more than 30 urban metro systems do so. It would of course be more difficult for a major national railroad system. And the idea enrages unions and unsettles many passengers. But as more and more of everyday life is automated, the public should grow more comfortable with the idea -- especially if preventable disasters like this one continue.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.