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Could Positive Train Control Prevent Accidents Like Amtrak Cascades 501?

By now, you’ve probably heard the story of Amtrak Cascades 501, an ill-fated train that derailed in DuPont, Washington in mid-December on its inaugural journey from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon. The accident happened when the train entered a curved overpass, traveling 80mph – nearly three times the posted speed limit of 30mph. The speed led the train to jump the tracks, spilling passenger cars over the edges and into the rush hour traffic passing below. Over 100 people were injured in the accident and at least three were killed.

The train’s speed was likely the primary reason for the crash. Is there anything that could have been done to prevent this accident? Was positive train control (PTC) installed on that section of track?

What is Positive Train Control? Could It Have Stopped Amtrak Cascades 501?

PTC is a system utilizing GPS, wireless radio and computers to keep track of a train’s speed and movement. When PTC notices that a train is moving too fast or may cause an accident, it can engage, automatically slowing down or even stopping the locomotive entirely. The system has been called the most important development in rail safety in over a century, according to representatives with the Federal Railroad Administration.

Studies show that roughly 40 percent of train crashes are caused by human error. It is thought that by universally adopting PTC on all rails and trains across the U.S., a large number of these accidents could be prevented. For this reason, the federal government has mandated the installation of PTC nationwide by the end of 2018. Amtrak has since equipped 49 percent of its trains and 67 percent of its rails with PTC.

The segment of track where the derailment occurred did have PTC installed. However, the system was not active. It is projected to become active by the second quarter of 2018.

If you have been injured in a West Coast rail crash, our law firm can help.