Amtrak gives new assurances on safety braking

The engine from an Amtrak train crash onto Interstate 5 in December is checked by workers.

Amtrak’s CEO has given Oregon and Washington state officials a timeline for when the company will activate automatic safety braking systems in the Pacific Northwest. This is the technology many experts believe could have prevented last month’s deadly train derailment south of Tacoma.

Amtrak told state legislators it’s working to activate what’s known as positive train control in the entire Cascade corridor “as soon as possible.” Installation was already in progress before the Dec. 18 train wreck because of a looming national deadline at the end of this year.

Amtrak Senior Government Affairs Manager Rob Eaton said sensors and radio links trackside, on locomotives and on a central server still need to be integrated.

“The testing and interaction of all three of these elements will take place during the second and third quarters of the year, after which PTC will be placed into operation,” he said.

Only then according to Washington state officials will passenger service resume on the faster bypass track along Interstate 5 where last month’s derailment happened.

After the derailment, Amtrak passenger service reverted to its prior route between Tacoma and Nisqually, Washington, along the shoreline of Puget Sound, which is shared with many freight trains.

Last week, Amtrak rolled back its recently expanded service between Seattle and Portland to the level that preceded the December derailment. The revised schedule offers four Amtrak Cascades daily roundtrips, down from the six roundtrips that launched on the morning of Dec. 18.

Washington state legislators were told during a committee briefing last week that positive train control is not active on any Amtrak passenger service west of the Mississippi.

Eaton said everyone at Amtrak feels “deep sorrow” for the loss of life and injuries resulting from the December derailment south of Tacoma. He said federal rules to protect the integrity of the National Transportation Safety Board crash investigation prevented him from disclosing any facts Amtrak has learned about the crash cause.

Washington state Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar testified that there was not undue pressure to launch high speed rail service before train engineers and crews were adequately prepared to use the renovated Point Defiance Bypass route.

“There was no deadline for initiating service,” Millar said. He acknowledged there were deadlines for completing construction on track and signal upgrades, which he said were not a factor.

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