Amtrak Crash Highlights Need to Accelerate Safety Upgrades in Bay Area

Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, Caltrain and rail generally are 12 times safer than driving...but safety upgrade delays still present a risk

An Amtrak train waiting to depart for San Jose from Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
An Amtrak train waiting to depart for San Jose from Oakland. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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Yesterday morning Amtrak Cascades #501 derailed on a curve in Dupont, Wash. Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite, advocates with the Rail Passengers Association (RPA), were two of the three people killed in the crash. They were riding the train on its inaugural run on a new track alignment that reduces travel times on the popular service between Seattle and Portland.

Federal Officials are confirming that #501 was traveling at 80 mph on a curve rated for 30 mph when it derailed.

It’s a tragic coincidence that Hamre and Willhoite were part of an organization that has long advocated for rail safety measures that, it’s starting to look like, would have automatically applied the brakes and prevented the crash. “Yesterday Jim Hamre became a martyr for more and safer passenger trains in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. His thoughtfulness, kindness, and humility informed decades of effective advocacy work for the Rail Passengers Association, with many years militating for the very line on which he perished,” wrote Matt Melzer, a representative for the RPA, former San Francisco resident, and personal friend of Hamre’s, in a post about the tragedy.

The safety measure in question is Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC is a safety system that uses computers, satellites, and radio signals to prevent a train from running a red light, speeding, approaching a turn too fast; it overrides the train driver and applies the brakes if he or she does something that could cause a crash.

Fortunately, PTC is getting installed on trains around the Bay Area, albeit way behind schedule. The Caltrain modernization program, for example, isn’t just about electrificationit also includes PTC. The system was supposed to be live by 2016, but is now delayed and isn’t expected to be operational until some time next year. Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor trains, between Sacramento, Oakland, and San Jose, won’t have PTC for at least another year, either. “Caltrain PTC is pretty involved and they’ve had a hard time breaking it in,” said Dennis Lytton, a Bay Area-based rail-safety expert. Overall, he said PTC is “a pretty complex beast. ”

The Marin-Sonoma SMART train, thankfully, launched with PTC already in place and is now the only federally regulated railroad in the U.S. to be completely outfitted with PTC. High-speed rail will also launch with PTC in place; the high-speed rail project is helping fund PTC installation on commuter railroads throughout California.

As reported in Streetsblog USA, PTC technology was mandated by Congress after a 2008 train crash in Los Angeles took the lives of 25 people. (It’s hard to understand why it took until 2008 to pass a law mandating it–back in 1990, 453 people were injured when a train sped through a curve in Boston and jumped the tracks. Simpler versions of PTC already existed and could have been mandated back then.) Either way, the Boston crash, the L.A. crash, as well as more recent crashes in Philadelphia and New York, could have all been prevented by PTC. American railroads pretty much all missed the legally mandated deadline to go live with the system in 2015. On the Cascades route, where yesterday’s fatal derailment took place, PTC is supposed to go live in 2018.

BART and Muni are regulated by a different entity than Amtrak and the commuter trains and, as such, have long had systems that prevent trains from running red signals. But the Bay Area systems that share tracks with freight trains–meaning Caltrain, SMART, and the Capitol Corridor Amtrak trains–are regulated by the Federal Railway Administration since they use the national rail network. Lobbying and foot-dragging by freight railroads, which own and share most of this network, have exacerbated delays in implementing PTC on commuter railroads and Amtrak.

All of that said, even when the safety systems are sub-par, rail is still more than 12 times safer than car travel per passenger mile–that was something Hamre and Willhoite knew well, which is part of why they advocated for more trains.

“I hope the national media picks up on his story and that it reverberates in the halls of Congress and regulators and the boardrooms of the Class I railroads, all of whom are culpable for dragging their feet on making crash avoidance the cornerstone of U.S. railroad safety culture,” wrote Melzer in his post about his friend Hamre. “Then he and the other victims will not have died in vain.”

  • crazyvag

    For anyone looking into reason for delays, I suggest you search Google for FCC PTC Spectrum and see how much delay was caused by spectrum availability across the country.

  • DrunkEngineer

    “Caltrain PTC is pretty involved and they’ve had a hard time breaking it
    in,” said Dennis Lytton, a Bay Area-based rail-safety expert. Overall,
    he said PTC is “a pretty complex beast. ”

    I don’t know who this Dennis Lytton guy is, but he is totally wrong.

    PTC is a turn-key technology, easily implemented. The reason it has turned into a nightmare “complex beast” for Caltrain is because they wanted to design a proprietary system. Even worse, that system will not compatible with the PTC system CAHSR is planning to use.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    American transportation in a nutshell. Instead of taking a technology off-the-shelf and just using it, we have to “innovate” by implementing a noticeably worse solution at ten times the price.

    America needs to practice just copying, exactly, whatever it is that the French, Japanese, Germans, Spanish, or Chinese are doing. Literally just do the same thing.

  • Affen_Theater

    Caltrain’s called its proprietary homebrew PTC system CBOSS (for Communication Based Overlay Signal System). It also likely won’t be compatible with ACE, Amtrak (Capitols and Coast Starlight) or UP freights—all of which share track with Caltrain in the San Jose area.

    After years of ominous warning signals the project was going off the rails (hopelessly late and over-budget) Caltrain fired and sued its contractor, Parsons Transportation Group, who them promptly counter-sued Caltrain. Since that time (about a year ago) Caltrain has been remarkably tight-lipped about status. The Caltrain-HSR Compatibility Blog long ago predicted this mess:

    Steaming Pile of CBOSS

  • thielges

    From what I’ve heard CBOSS suffered from the Not Invented Here syndrome. They drew up a list of requirements and could not find an off-the-shelf solution that addressed all of them, so they launched on developing their own. But nobody asked the question : “What is so unique about Caltrain’s little 70 mile network that isn’t found on the thousands of miles of track in dozens of countries where off-the-shelf PTC solutions are deployed?”. No doubt some or all of those unmet requirements were mirages.

    Computer controller projects taken on by organizations who have never implemented such a project should have a big red sign that says “This project is bigger than it appears!”. Just defining the complete functionality required is a huge and open-ended task. Contractors will gladly take your money and implement the the spec. But who checks that the spec is correct and complete?

  • Affen_Theater

    One such key requirement was that Caltrain wanted their PTC solution to keep crossing gates just beyond station platforms to keep from activating (and then timing out, as they currently do) when trains approach the platform to make a stop.

    It turns out there are a relatively small number of these (Sunnyvale Ave., Castro, Alma, Ravenswood, Oak Grove, both Broadways and a few others) and they’ll all be grade separated someday anyway. The expense, delay and grief was — now even more obviously, with the benefit of hindsight — totally not worth it.

    Note: SMART’s 44-mile phase 1 is nearly the length of the ~48-mile SF-SJ Caltrain core service … and was started well after Caltrain embarked on its ill-fated CBOSS clusterf*ck, and is up and running in revenue service while nobody can say when CBOSS will be up and running, if ever.

  • artnouveau

    One more reason why passenger trains need to get off freight railroad tracks and why freight trains need to be on tracks independent of those operated by the freight railroads: Separate sets of tracks for freight and passenger trains, in other words.

    I thought Metrolink in Southern California, which also has PTC in use, was also federally regulated.

    A correction: Federal Railroad Administration, not “Federal Railway Administration.”

  • thielges

    I’m not sure whether it was CBOSS or its predecessor system in effect but I’ve seen bad crossing gate behavior at Sunnyvale on multiple occasions. The gates actually go up while a train is passing the grade crossing. So if a pedestrian was in zombie mode they would walk right into the side of the moving train.

    My guess that the CBOSS gate timeout requirement was driven by lack of will or cash to provide ADA compliant grade separated crossings.

  • Affen_Theater

    Gate timeouts are nothing new and have nothing to do with Caltrain’s never-finished, never-deployed CBOSS PTC system. The behavior you describe is never supposed to happen and is an obvious malfunction.

    The constant time warning (CTW) “predictors” Caltrain uses determine when to activate the crossing gate based on the train’s speed and distance from the crossing in order to provide a constant warning time (e.g. 25 seconds). A train approaching a crossing on the far side of a station typically triggers the CTW while approaching the station and the crossing gates activate. When the system “notices” that the train has slowed to a stop, the crossing gates “time out” (deactivate) in order to allow traffic to cross until it detects that the train has resumed moving toward the crossing.

    The idea with CBOSS was to eliminate the needless first gate activation (and subsequent timeout) for trains that CBOSS “knows” (and will enforce, because it’s PTC!) will be making a station stop short of the crossing. So the result would be that the gates would only come down once for those crossings (until they could someday be eliminated by costly grade separation projects).

  • Affen_Theater

    Since you have (evidently) already done it, why not just enlighten us? Many of us (me included) would be curious to know, exactly how many years of delay can be blamed on FCC, and why? And why aren’t the RRs all blaming FCC for why they’re not getting PTC done. (Some now want the implementation deadline moved back AGAIN … this time to 2020!)

  • Metrolink has PTC on all the tracks that “they” (i.e. the member agencies) own, but I’m not sure about all the tracks where they operate.

  • What about the Amtrak San Joaquins and ACE? Do they not operate in the Bay Area too?

    Anyway, another issue is that every railroad operator has been developing their own unique system which creates nightmares when trying to integrate them over different rail networks. It would’ve made far more sense to just have a far more integrated system used by all instead of trying to mesh them all together.

  • crazyvag
  • Affen_Theater

    Thanks @crazyvag. And so as the Fortune article clearly explains, the problem was clearly that Amtrak (and others) inflexibly and lazily sat back and folded their arms across their chest waiting for dedicated spectrum from FCC for an old-fashioned, spectrum-wasting and less robust single-frequency solution when frequency-hopping spread-spectrum is clearly both superior and the way to go … with no waiting required. Waahhh! It’s toooo hard. We need more time. Waaahh! Bunch of inflexible, unimaginative, excuse-making (and loving) lazy losers.

  • Affen_Theater

    For its inaugural phase 1 between San Rafael and northern Santa Rosa, SMART (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit) rehabilitated 44 route-miles of old rickety speed-restricted freight tracks for 79 mph running within just a few years and is now up and running in revenue service with PTC fully implemented and operational … along with continued (albeit infrequent) freight service.

    Everyone else who’s been crying to the FRA (Federal RR Administration) that it can’t be done faster, etc. and that they need more time are just uncommitted foot-dragging cry-babies.


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