Fatal Pennsylvania Amtrak Crash Calls Safety Systems into Question

By John Cooper, Railroad Accident Attorney

A safety system called Positive Train Control (PTC) has been hailed as a way to prevent the numerous wrecks on America’s railroads.

However, Sunday's fatal Amtrak accident in Pennsylvania that claimed the life of two railroad workers and injured more than 30 on the train, may have highlighted possible deficiencies in a collision prevention system that is supposed to stop crashes on America’s railroads.

Reuters reported the train that hit a backhoe over the weekend was equipped with PTC. It’s not clear whether the maintenance vehicle had PTC. The National Transportation Safety Board is looking at whether the train's PTC system functioned correctly on Sunday, Reuters reported.

Amtrak became the first American railroad to fully install PTC last year on its routes. The technology uses antennae on trains as well as track-fitted sensors to ascertain the location of trains and to stop them colliding.

However, a report in the Wall Street Journal claimed track workers may not have used a basic safety measure that has been around for decades and could have stopped the collision occurring.

The device in question was reported to be a supplemental shunting device. It’s a piece of equipment that should be clamped to the track and forms an electric circuit to alert the signaling system that there’s a maintenance vehicle on the line, the Wall Street Journal stated.

The report quoted Steven Ditmeyer from Virginia, a consultant and former federal railroad official.

He said the use of the shunt would have allowed PTC to operate successfully and should have avoided the crash.

“It would have triggered the signal system, which would have triggered PTC,” Mr. Ditmeyer told the Wall Street Journal. “I can think of no reason that there would not be a shunt in place” when maintenance is under way.

The report said Amtrak’s own rules do not require the devices to be used  in every case, but they are “generally required” as a backup protection measure when there is maintenance equipment on a track that’s active.

These reports are alarming as well as a suggestion by an Amtrak insider in the Journal report that the shunts are routinely not used. This could point to a lax safety culture that pervades Amtrak as a whole.

Other reports blamed a breakdown of communications on the crash that claimed the lives of workers Joseph Carter Jr., 61, of Wilmington, and Peter John Adamovich, 59, of Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania.

Safety questions have been frequently asked of Amtrak in recent years following serious crashes. A derailment last year the killed eight and injured more than 200 on an Amtrak train in Philadelphia appears to have been caused by human error and resulted in a slew of lawsuits against Amtrak after it was revealed the train derailed on a curve at a high speed.

Human error may also have been to blame for the latest serious accident near Philadelphia. If you have been injured in a train crash or if you have lost a loved one, you should consider calling our railroad accident attorneys at (757) 455-0077.

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