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Positive Train Control could have prevented Tuesday’s crash. Congress made it mandatory in 2008. But it also continues to cut funding needed to fully implement it.

Investigators don’t know yet why an Amtrak passenger train was traveling twice the speed limit at Frankford Junction when it derailed in Philadelphia. But officials have the technology that would have prevented the fatal crash that killed eight people and injured scores more on Tuesday night.

A communications safety system known as Positive Train Control could have slowed the speeding Amtrak train before it entered into the curve at more than 100 miles per hour. This system—part monitoring system, part emergency brake, part remote control—isn’t obscure or hypothetical. The 110th Congress made PTC mandatory in 2008.

But the safety system still has yet to be implemented across much of the nation, thanks in large part to legislative deadlock.

“Had such a system been installed on this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” said Robert Sumwalt, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, in a press conference on Wednesday evening.

Sumwalt didn’t mince his words. That’s because the NTSB has been beating this drum for years. The technology dates back to the 1970s; the NTSB first placed PTC on its “Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements” in 1990, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

After a 2008 collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people, Congress took action. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) requires rail providers across the nation to implement PTC by December 31, 2015. The bill left it to the rail industry to decide how PTC would work.

It was a heavy lift from the start. There are myriad challenges with designing, testing, and installing an array of reliable, interoperable monitoring systems. PTC would prevent crashes caused by human error; these mistakes account for about one-third of rail crashes. As CityLab’s own Eric Jaffe explains, the costs for implementing PTC could fall between $6.7 billion and $22.5 billion. But if those costs are passed on to consumers altogether, then PTC could inadvertently push rail users to drive instead—which is far less safe.

A 2010 article in Progressive Railroading outlines the many technical challenges that rail providers encountered early on. However, the system selected by Amtrak for the Northeast Corridor—the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES)—came with certain key technical advantages, and Amtrak has led the way in PTC implementation.

Still, seven months out from the December 31 deadline, along the nation’s busiest rail corridor, PTC is scarce. Neither legislators nor rail providers could have known in 2008 that the recession would drag on as long as it did, or that Congress would never again pass a full budget for transportation.

Although Amtrak has said that it will implement PTC across all its lines by the deadline, today, ACSES is operational on only three railroads:

  • The line between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut
  • Part of the New Jersey railroad between New York and Philadelphia (running south of New Brunswick to Trenton)
  • Part of the Maryland railroad between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (running from Ragan to Perryville)

By 2012, the Federal Railroad Administration was saying that the 2015 deadline was a no-go. An August 2012 report from FRA to Congress is clear: “FRA believes that the majority of railroads will not be able to complete PTC implementation by the 2015 deadline.” Congress had given the rail industry an unfunded mandate:

When the RSIA was passed in 2008, the industry was operating under the premise that a new, long-term reauthorization bill would increase Federal capital support for commuter rail systems through FTA grants or that additional Federal funding would be made available to assist in the implementation of PTC.

However, more than 3 years later, the majority of FTA grants have been funded through short-term extensions ... and no long-term bill has been enacted. This reduces funding certainty and affects the commuter railroads’ ability to implement long-term plans. Additional public funding was fundamental to commuter railroads’ ability to achieve the 2015 deadline.

Logistical challenges and funding gaps notwithstanding, rail providers have not rebelled against the PTC mandate. A 2013 statement from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) said that the industry was “aggressively implementing” PTC in order to “prevent collisions between trains and derailments resulting from trains traveling too fast.”

It is estimated that the cost of full implementation of PTC will be at least $2.75 billion,” said Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of APTA, in the statement. “To date, Congress has only appropriated $50 million for PTC for this critical safety program.”

But the deadline has proven impossible. APTA has called for an extension, a measure that the Association of American Railroads also supports. One act before Congress would push the deadline to 2020; both the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO have opposed moving the goal posts that far, and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has also rejected a broad, blanket extension. Another bill before Congress would move the date year-to-year.

Yet the issue isn’t that the industry needs a little more time; the problem is that rail needs a lot more money. The Obama administration’s transportation budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $3 billion over six years to assist with implementing PTC, but the House voted on Wednesday—the day after the crash—to slash Amtrak’s budget.

Amtrak’s February newsletter notes that ACSES is already operational on 400 miles of track but that 1,200 more miles still remain. Any decision by Amtrak and other rail providers to delay the implementation of PTC was not made idly. In 2010, for example—to select just one year between 2008 and today—Amtrak replaced two fixed bridges and rebuilt two movable bridges, rehabilitated fire-prevention systems in New York tunnels, and upgraded fire-alarm systems in New York Penn Station. None of this work along the Northeast Corridor could be put off.

The implementation of PTC on the Northeast Corridor (and elsewhere) is badly overdue. But so is everything else—and some claims on rail providers’ agendas are even more pressing. As the FRA explained in 2012:  

With a backlog of unfunded good repair projects of approximately $78 billion, diversion of resources by the intercity passenger and commuter railroads to implement PTC systems is to the further detriment of other essential projects. FRA is concerned that such diversion decisions could create future large-scale safety or operations problems that present greater risks than those that PTC is intended to prevent.

No one will ever know what crises might have happened had planners and leaders made different decisions. This is the ghoulish calculus that lawmakers will enter into once again. Just as a crash in 2008 pushed Congress to adopt rail safeguards at high costs, the crash on Tuesday will force legislators to decide whether they actually want to pay for them.

This post has been updated to add information about Amtrak’s PTC commitments.

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