Cantwell Pushes Rail Officials on Safety, Positive Train Control

Cantwell: If safety regulations failed in case of Amtrak 501, what are you doing to improve them?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the ranking member of the committee, pressed Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Ron Batory on safety compliance and culture, as well as the ongoing implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC). 

“I sent a letter after the NTSB findings and lessons learned after the Amtrak 501 derailment in the state of Washington, and the FRA response to my letter states that: ‘FRA’s investigation of the Amtrak 501 accident found that training for assigned crewmembers did not comply with federal regulation and was a contributing factor in the cause of the accident, and FRA’s enforcement action is ongoing,’” Cantwell said in a question for Batory. “So, I don’t want to talk about the ongoing investigation, but can you explain how a deficient crewmember training standard was able to comply with FRA’s existing regulations, and what are you doing to improve those regulations?” 

Batory responded that the failures in safety were “unprecedented” in the railroad industry. 

“As far as what transpired that morning, when I learned of it, just from my career experience, I shook my head in dismay. To think that you would have an inaugural train with an engineer - regardless of what level of training he had or proficiency - not have a road foreman of engines on that train, it’s just unprecedented. We don’t do that in the railroad industry. So there was a failure in management that allowed that to happen,” Batory said. 

Later in the hearing, Cantwell pressed Batory on additional steps the FRA could take to make sure safety is prioritized at railroads around the country. 

“Look, I get cultures are hard to legislate. You have to create these safety standards, and you do have to make sure they’re implemented. So, from FRA’s perspective, I just want to know whether you think that everything FRA has done to date, you’ve done everything you can to make sure that’s implemented,” Cantwell said. 

Cantwell also talked about the importance of the ongoing implementation of Positive Train Control. 

“Since the National Transportation Safety Board Administration first recommended Positive Train Control implementation, PTC could have prevented over 150 different crashes, and many fatalities and injuries,” Cantwell said. “It’s unacceptable that in the year of 2019 we have not fully implemented this important safety, and even when PTC has been fully implemented, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, there will still be miles of tracks that have not been part of PTC. They will be exempted, including over 1,400 miles of track used by Amtrak…. Implementing PTC is truly a major step forward for safety, and I know it has been a long time coming to get where we are today.” 

In her role on the Commerce Committee, Cantwell has been a consistent advocate for increasing accountability and investment in rail safety in the United States. In July of 2015, as the Senate considered the DRIVE Act, Senator Cantwell expressed concern that the bill would delay PTC implementation and roll back safety protections. In December of 2017, Cantwell joined her Senate colleagues from the Pacific Northwest to demand railroads be held accountable for PTC implementation. In January 2018, Cantwell led members of the Washington Congressional delegation in calling for a comprehensive update from the Federal Railroad Administration on the nationwide implementation of PTC. In March 2018, after calling for a hearing in the wake of the DuPont derailment, Cantwell pressed Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson on rail safety and PTC implementation. And earlier this month, Cantwell wrote a letter to the FRA calling for an analysis of gaps in the nationwide implementation of PTC. 

Video of Cantwell’s opening statement at the hearing is available HERE, and audio is available HERE.

Video of Cantwell’s Q&A with Administrator Batory is available HERE, and audio is available HERE.