Amtrak crash demands answers

Sen. Pat Toomey, center white shirt, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, center tan shirt, and Sen. Robert Casey, right blue shirt, tour the scene of a deadly train wreck, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia on Tuesday night killing at least seven people and injuring dozens more. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Federal safety investigators must rightly focus on engineer error as the proximate cause of Tuesday’s horrific train crash in Philadelphia. But the railroad itself bears a responsibility for failing despite promises to install “positive train control” technology that would have safely stopped the train before it derailed.

The accident happened with breathtaking speed. For unknown reasons the train was traveling around 106 miles per hour just a few minutes after leaving the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia on its way north. At that speed it would cover a mile in just 34 seconds. An automatic warning alerted the engineer to slow down, and he applied emergency brakes. But the train was still going 102 miles an hour when it entered a curve with a 50-mph speed limit and left the tracks.

To figure out how and why this happened the National Transportation Safety Board will use the train’s black box and interviews with the engineer, who reportedly suffered a concussion and says he doesn’t remember what happened.

Hopefully, that is just a temporary condition. NTSB investigators are excellent, and the story will undoubtedly come out when they have finished a meticulous probe.

Meanwhile, Congress should determine why life-saving technology in use on other parts of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor has not been installed at this particularly dangerous section of track despite a 2012 promise by the railroad to get the job done by the end of that year.

In a March 22, 2012, release, Amtrak’s president, Joe Boardman, said the passenger railroad would add 1,200 miles of track to the 530 miles already covered by positive train control (PTC), including all Amtrak-owned sections of the Northeast Corridor, by the end of 2012. The track where Tuesday’s accident occurred is owned by Amtrak.

“PTC is the most important rail safety advancement of our time and Amtrak is strongly committed to its expanded use to enhance safety for our passengers, employees and others with whom we share the tracks across our national network,” Boardman said in a statement that should come back to haunt him.

If performed, that promise would have put Amtrak two years ahead of a deadline from Congress that it must install PTC before the end of 2015.

It’s troubling that none of the improvements promised in that 2012 press release appears to have been carried out. A January article in a magazine for Amtrak employees reported that plans to cover the additional 1,200 miles of track, including the rest of the Northeast Corridor, are “on the horizon,” with no clear completion date.

Amtrak will no doubt plead insufficient funds as one reason for the three-year delay.

But that should not be a sufficient answer, since the railroad obviously thought it had the resources to complete the job in 2012.

A full accounting is due from Amtrak for its failure to follow through on the timely installation of PTC as promised.