Computer Controlled Trains Could Remove ‘Human Error' From Derailments, Expert Says

On Nov. 30, 2007, Amtrak’s Pere Marquette plowed into a stopped freight train on the Norfolk Southern tracks. The collision was caught on freight yard video.

Three people were hospitalized while others were bruised and bloodied.

The crash on Chicago’s South Side was among the first to prompt a call for positive train control (PTC).

But DePaul transportation expert Joe Schwieterman says 10 years later, most railroads still have not implemented the computer-controlled, satellite-based systems.

"Positive train control is supposed to be a one-size-fits-all solution," said Schwieterman. "Trains are automatically slowed down if they are approaching a curve too fast. If there is collision risk, speed adjustments are made. Try to take human error out of the equation."

Among the rail carriers pushing back the deadlines is Metra, which says it expects to implement PTC on its lines by 2020 at a cost of over $400 million dollars.

Amtrak says PTC was not enabled Monday morning when the 501, a high-speed train on its inaugural run, left the tracks causing multiple casualties in Washington state.

Later this year, Amtrak is set to begin high-speed service between Chicago and St. Louis with trains that can travel as fast as 110 miles an hour.

At such high speeds, some experts say PTC is necessary as a back up to human engineers.

"The dilemma with positive train control is we are trying to do the whole country, effectively, at once," Schwieterman said. "Every railroad has their own system. A lot of us watching this thing…lets pick our battles. Find the corridors with the highest risk. Focus on that. Be flexible, but get something in place."

Contact Us