1970’s Positive Train Control Still Not “Shovel Ready”

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The parade of Democrats racing to microphones to cash in politically on the Amtrak tragedy was stunning; even for this special crew of slip & fall ambulance chasers. Although clueless to its specific cause they called for more infrastructure spending and blamed cheapskate Republicans for a lack of funding. Sometimes implied, other times more directly stated, was that GOP legislators were putting the almighty dollar ahead of the safety of their fellow Americans.

When it became clear that it was 106 MPH in a 50 MPH zone, and perhaps “human error”, as opposed to some structural problem that caused the catastrophe, Dems altered their attack. They fingered the lack of a functional Positive Train Control system on that curved section of the Philadelphia tracks. A little bit of PTC research followed by some intellectual honesty would have shown that it hasn’t been a lack of money, but an abundance of bureaucracy preventing the full application of this long sought safety measure.

Here’s the timeline, right from National Transportation Safety Board:

  • “On August 20, 1969, two Penn Central commuter trains collided head-on near Darien, Connecticut, killing four and injuring 43.”
  • “The NTSB issued its first recommendation calling for automatic train control in 1970.”
  • “In 1990, the need for a safety redundancy system on railroads still existed, and positive train separation (which was renamed positive train control in 2001) was first placed on the Safety Board’s Most Wanted List.”
  • “In March 2005, the NTSB held a symposium on PTC to reinvigorate the dialogue between the railroad industry and state and federal agencies on issues relevant to the implementation of PTC systems.”
  • “Following a collision involving a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train that claimed 25 lives in Chatsworth, California, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.”
  • The new law called “for the implementation of a PTC system by December 31, 2015.”

This “fix” has been on the government drawing board for 45 years. Tied up in symposiums aimed at creating invigorating dialogue between railroad and government agencies, the original goals from almost half a century ago remain unmet.

Compare that record to milestones over a 44 year span, in a largely free market aviation industry. In 1903 the Wright Brothers flew 40 yards for 12 seconds. Twenty-four years later Charles Lindberg flew, non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. 1946 saw private airlines establish around the world passenger service, while the following year Chuck Yeager piloted the first supersonic jet flight.

Is lack of money available for PTC the problem? It is hard to imagine that over a period of 4 ½ decades, when spending was mostly controlled by House Democrats, needed financing was not available. It’s also important to note that within months of the 2008 legislation President Obama loudly boasted of all the infrastructure spending we could expect from his $800 billion “Stimulus Plan”. Estimates for how much was actually spent range from 3% to 10% . Obama was later caught dismissively laughing while saying “Shovel ready was not as shovel ready as we expected.”

We can now say pretty much the same about the highly touted, life saving, Positive Train Control System. Even after 45 years in the “planning” a PTC system wasn’t “shovel ready” at that deadly turn in Philly. The difference this time is, given the tragic loss of life, there are no giggly grins from smug, big government pols announcing yet another failure of their beloved bureaucracy.