Nelson Statement on Report That Basic Safety Measures May Have Prevented Amtrak Crash

April 6, 2016

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, issued the following the statement in response to a Wall Street Journal report today that Amtrak crews may not have followed basic safety procedures that could have prevented Sunday’s deadly train accident in Pennsylvania. 

“It’s disturbing that this tragic accident may have been prevented by following basic safety measures, “ said Nelson.  “There needs to be redundant protections, such as shunts, in place to prevent these kinds worker-related accidents.  Federal regulators should also take a look at whether there is a larger pattern of safety lapses at Amtrak.”    

The FAST Act, which was signed into law in December, includes a Commerce Committee provision that requires the Department of Transportation to come up with a rule on redundant signal protections needed to prevent such accidents.

Below is the text of the Wall Street Journal story.


Wall Street Journal

Safety Step Not Taken Before Crash

By Andrew Tangel, Scott Calvert and Ted Mann

April 6, 2016

An investigation into this week's Amtrak crash in Chester, Pa., indicates track workers didn't deploy a basic, decades-old safety measure that experts say could have prevented a collision that killed two workers and injured more than 30 passengers, people familiar with the matter said.

Crews performing track work on a stretch of Amtrak's heavily traveled Northeast Corridor on Sunday apparently didn't put in place what is known as a supplemental shunting device, in apparent violation of Amtrak's own worker-protection rules, these people said. The device, which is clamped to the track, completes an electrical circuit to alert the signaling system that the track is occupied.

Had a shunt been used, Amtrak's computerized collision-avoidance system known as positive train control, or PTC, could have prevented the accident, said Steven Ditmeyer, a former federal railroad official and Virginia-based consultant who has advised the U.S. government and transportation industry groups but not Amtrak.

"It would have triggered the signal system, which would have triggered PTC," Mr. Ditmeyer said of the shunting device. "I can think of no reason that there would not be a shunt in place" when maintenance is under way.

An Amtrak spokesman declined to comment, citing a continuing investigation led by the National Transportation Safety Board. An NTSB spokesman declined to comment.

Amtrak rules don't require the devices in every case, but they are generally required as backup protection when maintenance equipment obstructs active track. Human error -- and whether Amtrak employees skirted safety procedures -- appears to be one focus for investigators, people familiar with the matter said.

Some railroads have added new safety procedures after worker fatalities. In 2013, a Metro-North Railroad employee was killed in West Haven, Conn., when a dispatcher allowed a train to proceed through a work zone. The New York City-area commuter railroad now requires crews to transmit a special code before train traffic can resume.

In Chester, maintenance work on a track that was out of service required the adjacent track to be "fouled," or temporarily put out of service, to avoid collisions with equipment and workers, according to one of the people familiarwith the investigation.

In such cases, a maintenance foreman typically alerts the Amtrak dispatcher to activate a primary safety measure, a computerized "blocking device" that prevents the dispatcher from allowing a train to travel down that stretch of track, this person said. It couldn't be learned why the train apparently was cleared to proceed Sunday.

As for the shunting devices, Amtrak work crews don't always use them, this person said. "The attitude is, 'Ah, we're only going to be here for a little bit -- we're going to get in and get out of here.' The more responsible people use them all the time."

Federal Railroad Administration rules don't specifically require shunting, as regulations require other protective measures viewed as stronger defense against accidents.

Investigators have in part been focusing on potential miscommunication over a shift change between crews performing track work between Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia, people familiar with the matter have said.

On Monday, Amtrak official Gary Noto asked colleagues to procure supplemental shunting devices, or SSDs, for crews to use when they perform track work in short windows known as "foul time."

"Please get supply of SSD's for all crews, we must use them whenever getting foul time, the only exception I can think of is the track inspector who is walking miles of track and when signal system cannot support this action," Mr. Noto said in an email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The email also urged colleagues to supply more crews with portable radios, and to install radios in all equipment that "occupies or can foul."

The Amtrak spokesman said Mr. Noto wasn't available for comment.