Amtrak Cascades Derailment and Resuming Promised Service Levels

I’ve been keeping a keen eye on what Amtrak is working on towards resumption of service in the Amtrak Cascades corridor, and what actions are being taken around implementation of PTC. In the last week and some odd days several pieces of information to clarify what is being done and the next steps being taken by Amtrak, WSDOT, Sound Transit, and others.

The first key news is Amtrak wrote a letter to WSDOT and related parties with information about next steps and current actions. You can give it a read here (if it’s ever moved for some reason, I’ve copied it locally to my blog here). From this letter I’ve extracted a few pieces of information as follows, all of which I’ve paraphrased into key points:

Immediate Actions

  1. Amtrak has started and continues a number of safety training and related exercises company wide.
  2. Increased managers and supervisors at pre-trip crew briefings.
  3. Hired an Executive VP & Chief Safety Officer.
  4. Did something about some process that has to do with safety standards and related activities.
  5. Launched a root cause and corrective action process related to over-speed conditions.

Mid-Term Actions

  1. Achieve operation of the I-ETMS or the Electronic Train Management System Positive Train Control System across the entire Amtrak Cascades route.
  2. Onboard locomotives have 51% coverage on the diesel engine fleet. 151 have been fully commissioned and are ready to operate. All unites will be ready by September, 2018 and Amtrak will provide PTC-ready locomotives for use in the Amtrak Cascades service concurrent with system operability, as needed.
  3. Complete I-ETMS installation and activation for the Washington owned Siemens Charger locomotives.
  4. “The host railroads for the Amtrak Cascades Service – BNSF, Union Pacific, Sound Transit – are in the process of completing and testing trackside systems on all subsivisions in Washington and Oregon…” with the completion estimated for 3rd quarter of 2018.
  5. Amtrak’s BOS (Back Office Servers) will be federated with the host railroads BOS in 1st Quarter of 2018.  BOS being what is used to manage and communicate with the PTC via dispatch.
  6. Rollout for PTC is planned for 2nd and 3rd quarter of 2018.
  7. Amtrak has taken the lead on organizing the pertinent meetings to ensure this implementation takes place on this corridor.
  8. Re-qualify all Amtrak Cascades operating crews for operations over the Point Defiance Bypass in accordance with new standard protocols prior to restarting service.

Long Term Actions

  1. Develop and institute a comprehensive new Safety Management System process to improve safety and… some regulatory FRA stuff in the document that amounts to the intent to implement a new safety program that is more rigorous.

Ok, that’s the key points. Here are a few takeaways that I’ve noticed after reviewing the letter thoroughly.

My Observations

  1. The first thing I noticed is there is nothing about where or what Amtrak would do or if they would take action to acquire another Talgo trainset for the corridor. The simple fact is, additional Superliner, Amfleet, or related traditional passenger equipment can’t effectively be used in the corridor like the Talgo sets can be since they’re the only equipment we have in the United States that actually has the tilt mechanism for turns. This corridor, specifically, has a lot of twists and turns between Seattle and Portland, and north toward Vancouver BC. I’d like to know what they plan to do in this regard, since it isn’t exactly a quick process to get a new Talgo set. It would likely take at minimum, if a purchase agreement was signed tomorrow, 2 to 5 years to get a new set.
  2. There was a quick mention in the letter, but no real specifics about resumption of the 6 trains per day per direction between Seattle and Portland service levels. Currently we’re back to the previous schedule of 4 trains per day each direction.
  3. Honestly, much of the talk about safety improvements is likely for confidence building those that don’t understand how railroads are operated in the United States. To me, that’s fine, I realize how safe passenger rail is in the United States and a better focus on safety is great, but the real game change is the PTC system and the removal of the ideology around equipment/person survivability and instead a refocus on wreck prevention instead. There’s a reason that trains in Europe are, one could argue, exponentially safer than passenger trains in the United States. The focus on wreck prevention and the systems to prevent wrecks instead of the notion of survivability, which is misguided and has left us in a place where our rail is technically more dangerous then their rail systems. Albeit, I write this, with the reality that passenger rail is vastly safer than getting into a car any day, and safer than most other modes of transport except maybe airline service. Overall, it’s all pretty safe, and trains are a very safe option.
  4. Not one time have they mentioned that BNSF has PTC operational and working on their freight trains. Why has it lagged on the trains that truly need it, for the safety of human lives? The equipment is obviously there between Seattle and Portland, but I suspect poor funding support and Government mismanagement of the situation has exacerbated the problems for Amtrak and related groups involved.

Summary

Overall I’m personally satisfied with Amtrak’s efforts to mediate, mitigate, and manage safety improvements. However, the real safety improvements will be in political and technological advancements around things like PTC and changing the attitudes around what passenger rail should do, and shouldn’t do (like have 30mph turns right smack in the middle of 79mph tracks!) So their work is very much appreciated, but I’m more than aware that the actual improvements are going to need to come from outside of Amtrak as well as a few from inside.

In summary, I’m still left with one significant question though, which is, “how on earth is Amtrak going to resume the aforementioned level of service (6 trains each way between Portland and Seattle) and when is this going to happen?” I don’t have much hope or expectation around and answer for this soon, but I hope we find out in the next few weeks or months. If not, I’m not sure there will be much hope of service resumption for a number of years.

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