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Vermont Route Of Derailed Amtrak Train Exempt From Safety Mandate

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Amtrak’s Vermonter derailed Monday on along a stretch of track that will be exempt from a Dec. 31 congressional deadline to install a system to prevent trains from colliding.

The Vermonter is among half a dozen Amtrak trains that operate over a group of smaller freight carriers that federal regulators will not require to implement positive train control, which otherwise will protect most Amtrak and commuter train lines.

Most commuter and freight railroads will not meet the year-end deadline, set in 2008, and lawmakers are showing an increasing willingness to give them more time. But as the law currently stands, 190 miles of the Vermonter route will not be protected by the new system, which can prevent trains from passing stop signals or approaching curves too fast.

Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating Monday’s derailment of the southbound train near Northfield, Vt.

The train was bound from St. Albans, Vt., to Washington, D.C., and was carrying 98 passengers and four crew members. According to Amtrak, three crew members and four passengers were injured, with one crew member sustaining serious injuries.

Amtrak said the train derailed after striking a rock slide on the tracks, which are owned and maintained by the New England Central Railroad.

The New England Central and five other short-line railroads across several states are exempt from the positive train control requirement under a 2010 rule adopted by the Federal Railroad Administration.

As part of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, Congress directed the agency to decide what rail lines would need positive train control, with those routes carrying passengers and toxic chemicals getting first priority. But lawmakers gave the agency latitude to exclude rail lines it determined did not carry a significant amount of traffic.

The agency required the system on about 8,000 miles of passenger railroad. Together, the New England Central and five other Amtrak routes exempt from the requirement add up to 425 miles.

Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said those lines met the criteria for exemption.

“We continue to monitor these lines carefully and are always evaluating where additional actions are necessary to raise the bar on safety,” he said.

While the nation’s largest railroads are collectively spending billions of dollars to install positive train control, smaller carriers lack those resources.

The Vermonter route received a combined $120 million from President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail program in 2010 to improve train speeds in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Jo Strang, vice president for safety and regulatory policy at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, a trade group, said that smaller railroads have a different risk profile than larger carriers that run more trains.

For example, Strang said that smaller carriers with fewer trains could simply opt not to schedule any freight and passenger trains at the same time.

“That really eliminates any risk of a collision you could have,” she said. “There are other approaches you could take to make railroad operations safer.”

The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. After a collision between a commuter train and a freight train killed 25 people in Southern California in 2008, Congress approved the requirement and set a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for railroads to install it.

The system has proved complex and costly and was held up in part by the Federal Communications Commission over the availability of wireless spectrum and the placement of communications towers on or near Native American heritage sites.

Virtually no rail carrier will meet the current deadline, and Congress is considering legislation that would extend it another three years.

But the May 12 derailment of an Amtrak train in northeast Philadelphia thrust the requirement back into the spotlight. Eight people were killed when a northbound train approached a 50-mph curve at 106 mph and jumped the tracks.

Positive train control could have prevented the train from exceeding the posted speed at the curve, but it was not installed on the track the train was using at that location.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in a statement that positive train control was “essential to the safety of passengers and rail lines throughout our nation. If there’s a loophole in the system allowing some not to implement positive train control, then we need to close it, and fast.”

Photo: First responders work near the scene of an Amtrak passenger train derailment in Northfield, Vermont October 5, 2015. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Amtrak Train Derails In Vermont, Seven People Hospitalized

(Reuters) – An Amtrak passenger train hit debris from a rockslide and derailed in central Vermont on Monday, sending at least seven people to the hospital, officials said on Monday.

The train, en route from St. Albans, Vermont, to Washington, went off the tracks near Roxbury, about 20 miles south of the state capital Montpelier, Amtrak said in a statement.

The U.S. national passenger rail service said the derailment of Train 55 was reported to local authorities at 10:30 a.m.

Police and emergency crews went to the scene, Vermont State Police spokesman Scott Waterman said.

One Twitter user, who identified himself as Brian Bell, posted photographs of a train pressed up against a pile of rocks. “Hit a rock slide,” an accompanying message said. Images from others showed train cars that had slid down an embankment.

Seven passengers were transported to nearby hospitals. Amtrak said there were no immediate reports of life-threatening injuries.

The remaining passengers were loaded onto buses and taken to nearby Norwich University, a military college that acts as a Red Cross evacuation site.

Montpelier Fire Department Lieutenant Dana Huoppi told Fox News the train had five cars, two of which went down an embankment.

The incident came five months after the derailment of an Amtrak train near Philadelphia killed eight people and injured more than 200.

The May 12 accident spurred U.S. lawmakers to push through implementation of technology that could have prevented the accident but the rail industry has pressed for an extension of a year-end deadline to install so-called positive train control (PTC) for another three years.

In February, six people were killed in a fiery collision between a Metro-North Railroad passenger train and a sports utility vehicle in Valhalla, a New York City suburb.

The National Transportation Safety Board was gathering information about the accident.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Daniel Bases, Laila Kearney and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Bill Trott and Doina Chiacu)

Photo: Passengers stand outside of an Amtrak, which derailed near Roxbury, Vt., on October 5, 2015. Brian A. Bell/Twitter

Amtrak At Risk Of Disruption In Railroad Showdown With Congress

By Thomas Black, Bloomberg News (TNS)

DALLAS — Amtrak passenger service that runs on tracks owned by freight rail companies may be curtailed unless Congress extends a Dec. 31 deadline to implement a safety system that was mandated seven years ago.

December 2018 would be “more realistic” for implementing the technology, which automatically stops trains to prevent a collision or unsafe speeds, the Association of American Railroads said Tuesday in a statement. The system, known as positive train control, is to be installed on all lines that carry chemicals and passengers, a goal that the five major freight rail companies say can’t be done by the end of this year.

The current target “is arbitrary, unworkable and unrealistic,” said the group, which raised the possibility that the industry may curtail service on lines in January to prevent being in violation of the law.

Only about a third of Amtrak’s 31.6 million passengers in fiscal 2013 traveled on its own tracks, so the majority may be affected if the freight railroads curtail or stop services. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington will be ready by the deadline, said spokesman Marc Magliari. Positive train control is already on its line from Porter, Ind., to Kalamazoo, Mich.

Congress imposed the system on the railroads after a Los Angeles passenger train collided with a freight train in 2008, killing 25; a Metrolink engineer was sending text messages just before the crash.

The railroads face fines and penalties if the system isn’t operating by the end of the year. The Senate voted in July for an extension that requires having positive train control operational by no later than the end of 2018 in a transportation bill that needs approval from the House.

BNSF Railway Co., the railroad owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said in July that it is analyzing suspending operations on rail lines that require the safety system. The obligation for railroads to provide service to customers “is not absolute” and can be halted for safety reasons, Daniel Elliott, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board said in a Sept. 3 letter.

For BNSF to comply with the law “means about 11,300 miles of track that needs to be equipped,” said Michael Trevino, a spokesman, in an e-mail Tuesday.

The freight railroads, which have spent more than $5.7 billion on the system, will be put in an impossible situation if the deadline isn’t extended, the railroad association said. “If they stop or reduce services to avoid being in violation of the PTC law, they may face claims or litigation related to those competing obligations to provide service,” the group said.

Photo: An Amtrak train. Problems continue to plague the ailing transportation behemoth. Visit Florida Editor/Flickr

NTSB: Engineer Was Not Talking, Texting When Amtrak Train Derailed

By Paul Nussbaum, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — The engineer of Amtrak Train 188 was not talking or texting on his cellphone before the train’s deadly derailment in Philadelphia on May 12, the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.

The finding supported statements by the lawyer for engineer Brandon Bostian, 32, that the engineer’s cellphone was turned off and stowed in his bag during the trip from Washington, D.C., to New York.

However, NTSB vice chair Tho “Bella” Dinh-Zarr told a Senate committee Wednesday that investigators have not determined if the engineer was using an app or the phone for other purposes.

There was “no talking, texting or data usage involved,” said Dinh-Zarr. But, she added, “there are 400,000 pieces of data involved in the analysis. Because of the extent of that, things like use of an app or other use of the phone has not been determined. We are working with the records.”

“To determine whether the phone was in ‘airplane mode’ or was powered off, investigators in the NTSB laboratory in Washington have been examining the phone’s operating system, which contains more than 400,000 files of metadata,” the agency said in its statement Wednesday. “Investigators are obtaining a phone identical to the engineer’s phone as an exemplar model and will be running tests to validate the data.”

The NTSB’s determination heightened the mystery surrounding the cause of the accident: Why was the train traveling more than 100 miles per hour as it entered a curve where the speed limit was 50 miles per hour?

Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured in the crash.

Some engineers have speculated that Bostian may have lost track of his location, mistakenly believing he had already passed the Frankford Junction curve and was clear to open the throttle on the way to New York.

“Everybody at some point in their career has done that,” said one engineer, referring to the possibility of losing one’s place on a route. He spoke on the condition that he would not be named.

Engineers are required to memorize their routes and the speed limits and other standards, aided by signals in the locomotive cab and on the side of the track.

Speed limit signs often are not posted.

After the Train 188 wreck, the Federal Railroad Administration ordered Amtrak to post speed limit signs throughout the Northeast Corridor within 30 days, “with particular emphasis on additional signage at the curve locations” with sharp speed reductions, like Frankford Junction.

The head of the engineers’ union told a congressional committee last week that the lack of speed limit signs could prove to be a significant lapse.

“If we eventually learn that, for some reason, the engineer of Amtrak 188 became temporarily confused as to his location, it may be reasonable to conclude that the simple use of speed signs in the approach to the curve, as a reminder, may have prevented this accident,” said Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

“That would raise a question whether the decision not to post such signs was a human error that contributed to the accident.”

The NTSB said Wednesday that “analysis of the phone records does not indicate that any calls, texts, or data usage occurred during the time the engineer was operating the train.”

“Amtrak’s records confirm that the engineer did not access the train’s Wi-Fi system while he was operating the locomotive,” the report said.

The NTSB said the analysis of the engineer’s phone records was “more complicated than anticipated because the phone carrier has multiple systems that log different types of phone activity, some of which are based in different time zones.

“Investigators worked with the phone carrier to validate the time-stamps in several sets of records with activity from multiple time zones to correlate them all to the time zone in which the accident occurred,” the agency said.

(Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Investigators examine the train derailment site on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, after a northbound Amtrak train crashed in the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia Tuesday night. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)