New York City

Safety System, Positive Train Control, Is Installed at Derailment Site, Wasn't Ready

The safety system that experts say could have prevented the devastating derailment of Amtrak Regional 188 is installed on the tracks the train was using, but an NBC10 investigation found it simply wasn't ready.

Positive Train Control, or PTC, monitors a train's location and speed using trackside ground monitors that wirelessly communicate with trains and can remotely slow or stop the locomotive if it is speeding or about to collide with another train. A federal mandate requires Amtrak, transit authorities like SEPTA, and freight rail operators to have the technology operational by the end of the year.

Following Tuesday night's deadly derailment when Amtrak 188 jumped off a curve at Frankford Junction in Port Richmond traveling 102 mph — more than twice the speed limit — Amtrak officials said PTC was turned on in some sections of the Northeast Corridor, but wasn't ready to go in that part of Philadelphia.

The crash of Amtrak 188 killed eight people and injured more than 200 others. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said the derailment would not have happened had PTC been online.

PTC is installed at the curve, but isn’t ready for operation, the NBC10 Investigators have learned.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said Amtrak officials explained the system was installed, but blamed the Federal Communications Commission for delaying its activation.

"We know the system was not turned on. The question is why was it not turned on. Today, I don’t know that answer," the congressman said.

Since the PTC system communicates wirelessly, the FCC must approve the frequencies over which the data is transmitted. Amtrak also spent years negotiating the purchase of the spectrum with private companies. Something the rail operator says held up the process.

In early March, Amtrak applied to use the frequencies on rails running between New York City and Washington, D.C. and from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, documents obtained by the NBC10 Investigators showed.

Despite being blamed for a delay, an FCC official said the agency approved the application within two days of it being finalized.

“At this moment, I’ll certainly take the FCC at their word that they did what they said they did," Dent said.

Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz told NBC10 Friday afternoon the PTC system has been undergoing testing all along the Northeast Corridor — including through Philadelphia.

“We are very, very close to full implementation,” Schulz said. “It’s not flipping a switch.”

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