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NTSB Probe Focuses On Speed In Amtrak Derailment In Philadelphia


We'll hear next about a bit of technology that was designed to prevent the kind of crash that Amtrak suffered on Tuesday. To be clear, investigators do not know the cause of that crash. They do not know why the train went out of control. They do say the train was moving too fast, rolling into a curve at more than 100 miles per hour, twice the posted speed. A device exists that is supposed to make it impossible to go too fast. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: National Transportation Safety Board Investigators say just 11 minutes after leaving Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, Amtrak train number 188 was barreling down the tracks at over 100 miles per hour when it entered a curve where the speed limit is just 50.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: When we see a train operating at twice the posted speed, that is a significant red flag.

SCHAPER: Deborah Hersman is a former NTSB chairwoman and now president of the National Safety Council.

HERSMAN: One-hundred miles per hour was much too fast to go around that curve.

SCHAPER: Hersman says investigators are now tasked with trying to figure out why the Amtrak train, with 243 people on board, was going so fast. Was it human error or a mechanical problem? Either way, Hersman and others say there is technology that could've prevented this derailment and saved lives, a system called positive train control.

HERSMAN: It will slow or stop the train before it hits that over-speed or before it passes a red stop signal or before the collision.

SCHAPER: Positive train control uses GPS and track sensors to gather data about the tracks ahead and any obstacles in the way. And it will apply the brakes if necessary. David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, says if a train is approaching a curve too fast, the positive train control system will automatically slow the train down if the engineer doesn't.

DAVID CLARKE: You can't run the train too fast if the system is functional. It will not allow you to do that. You know, that's a big step towards removing the human failure from the system.

SCHAPER: Amtrak is implementing positive train control throughout the Northeast Corridor, but the NTSB says it is not in place in the area where the train derailed. By law, all railroads must have positive train control by the end of this year. But very few will meet the deadline. Joe Szabo is the former head of the Federal Railroad Administration, and he agrees positive train control is the next big thing in rail safety.

JOE SZABO: But it's also very technologically complex.

SCHAPER: And Szabo says the industry is facing legitimate issues in meeting the end of December deadline.

SZABO: In many cases, it's for technological challenges that are beyond the industry's control.

SCHAPER: So Szabo favors granting some railroads extensions. Former NTSB chairwoman Hersman has a different view.

HERSMAN: For every year that positive train control is not implemented, we will have more deaths.

SCHAPER: Still, Hersman and others are quick to point out that the U.S. passenger rail system, including Amtrak, is extraordinarily safe. It just tends to take tragic accidents such as Tuesday's to force action to make it even safer. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.