Our Commitment to Passengers and Employees: Safety and Positive Train Control

At Amtrak, safety is a way of life that’s deeply ingrained in every aspect of our operations and company culture.

Last year, 31 million passengers traveled across Amtrak’s 21,000-mile national network. One third of those passengers traveled on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (NEC), which accommodates more than 2,000 Amtrak and commuter trains every day. A rail network this large requires the utmost vigilance and dedication to a company culture that always places the safety of passengers and employees first.

Amtrak has a very strong safety record and never stops looking for areas to make further improvements. From 2000 to 2014, the total annual accident rate per million passenger miles fell from 4.1 to 1.7, and annual derailments fell from 80 to 28 over the same period. Many derailments occur in rail yards. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the overall count of Amtrak accidents decreased from 148 incidents in 2000, to 67 in 2014. While any train derailment is unacceptable, it has been 28 years since a derailment resulting in a passenger fatality occurred on the Northeast Corridor.  Also since 2000, accidents caused by track problems fell by two thirds and accidents caused by human error have been reduced by 50 percent.

Amtrak leads other Class 1 railroads in the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a safety technology designed to analyze track conditions and equipment speed for optimal safety. Amtrak is in the process of implementing a form of PTC known as the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) to ensure trains are operated at safe speeds along the Northeast Corridor.

Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install PTC. Despite funding and bandwidth obstacles that have precluded faster implementation of PTC along the entire Northeast Corridor, Amtrak remains on schedule to complete the full activation of PTC in accordance with the federal deadline of December, 2015. No other Class I railroad is as far along in installing PTC systems as Amtrak.

In April 2012, we created the Emergency Management and Corporate Security (EMCS) department to lead an integrated enterprise-wide system to prepare and protect Amtrak employees, customers and assets. One effort led by EMCS is the Passenger Train Emergency Response (PTER) program to enhance safety along the rails. It provides classroom and hands-on training for emergency response agencies, emergency managers and public works employees. In 2014, EMCS emergency managers trained 3,134 first responders nationwide, and they plan to reach another 3,500 responders in 2015.

We also collaborate with Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OL), a national non-profit organization with a mission to end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway-rail grade crossings and on railroad property. The current OL campaign encourages the public to “See Tracks, Think Train.” Nearly 100 Amtrak employees are trained as Operation Lifesaver Authorized Volunteers, and they help spread the word about trespassing dangers and grade-crossing safety to civic organizations, first responder classes, transportation groups and schools nationwide.

Since Amtrak took over the NEC in 1976, all Amtrak trains on the NEC have included a system called Automatic Train Control (ATC). ATC ensures that trains comply with the wayside signal system by providing a notification to the engineer through signals in the locomotive when the train approaches a more restrictive signal. If the engineer does not respond, the system will automatically apply the train’s brakes, and protect the train against a collision.

In the 1990s, Amtrak worked with industry partners to develop the nation’s first positive train control (PTC) system, known as the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES). ACSES was developed as an integral component of Amtrak’s plans for Acela; it was the first PTC system to be fully approved by the FRA for use in the United States, and the only one to be approved for speeds of 150mph.

ACSES has several components that build on the protection provided by ATC. ACSES provides protection against derailment from excessive speed, and includes programmable track transponders to store and transmit information on track condition and speed, a wayside interface unit, a temporary speed restriction server system, and an onboard installation on the locomotive. These systems are linked by radio (currently 900MHz slated for change to 220MHz), and the transponders are programmed with data about track configuration and permanent speed restrictions. ACSES provides protection against derailment from excessive speed.

All trains operating along the NEC are equipped with an ATC system including the segment of line owned, maintained and dispatched by Metro-North Railroad between New Rochelle and New Haven. Any locomotive entering the NEC are required to have an operational ATC system. ACSES went into operation in 2000, and is currently installed and operating on 206 of the 401 miles of track that Amtrak is responsible for on the Northeast Corridor spine.

The wayside components of ACSES have been installed on the Harrisburg Line and on the remainder of the South End of the NEC south of Newark, but the system is not yet operational (testing, FCC approval and equipment radio installation remain to be completed). Metro-North intends to install ACSES on their 56 mile line, which is in addition to Amtrak’s 401 miles, but the installation is still several years away.

Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA)
In October, 2008, Congress passed the RSIA, which mandated PTC installations on certain segments of the American rail network (including the NEC) by December 31, 2015. Shortly thereafter, Amtrak initiated a program to complete the installation of ACSES on those portions of the NEC (totaling approximately 401 route-miles) for which it was responsible. This included installation of transponders in the tracks, and the placement of “wayside interface units” and radio systems.

Amtrak leads all other large railroads (Class 1) in the railroad industry in the installation of PTC systems, having spent $110.7 million dollars since 2008 to install PTC. On the Northeast Corridor alone, 206 of the 401 miles of track are outfitted with PTC.

The Bandwidth Issue
One of the lessons learned during installation of PTC in Michigan, was that a 220MHz radio was a superior alternative to the original 900MHz system that we were using on our Northeast Corridor fleet. The 220MHz radio transmitted information more quickly, offered better coverage, and more room for growth. However, the process for obtaining the necessary bandwidth proved to be a difficult one. Between 2010 and 2014, litigation and regulatory proceedings obstructed Amtrak’s attempts to purchase bandwidth on the open market. Amtrak simultaneously searched for alternate solutions and sought repeatedly but unsuccessfully to obtain an allocation of the necessary spectrum from the Federal Communication Commission’s inventory of unused spectrum. Amtrak was able to complete the purchase in December 2014, obtain the FCC’s consent in February, and Amtrak took title in April 2015. The next step will be the installation and testing process for the radio system on our NEC locomotive fleet over the next few months. Provided the FCC’s requirements are met, we intend to complete the system on the NEC by the end of 2015 and meet the federally mandated requirement. No other Class I railroad is as far along in installing PTC systems as Amtrak.

Signal Protection at Frankford Junction – The Site of Train 188 Derailment
Regional trains are allowed to move around the curve at Frankford Junction at 50 mph; those enroute from New York to Philadelphia (from the east) are slowing from speeds of 110mph, while those enroute from Philadelphia to New York (from the west) are slowing from speeds of up to 80mph. This situation was reviewed in conjunction with the FRA after the non-fatal Back Bay, Massachusetts, derailment in 1990. Because the approach speeds on the east side are too high for trains to pass the curve safely, a “code change point” was installed east of the curve to give engineers a warning on the ATS system, and force them to slow the train. A similar point was not installed on the west side of the curve because the maximum speeds were so much lower that a train that did not slow could still round the curve without derailing.

During the weekend of May 16-17, 2015, Amtrak completed installation of a code change point on the west side of the curve, which will ensure trains from the west approach enter the curve at 45mph. Trains approaching from the east must still approach and enter the curve at 50 mph.

We remain on schedule to complete the full activation of PTC in the Northeast Corridor—including Frankford Junction—in accordance with the federal deadline of December 31, 2015.