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Amtrak Gives Oregon, Washington Timetable For Activating Safety Enhancements

Washington State Patrol
File photo. Amtrak Cascades Train 501 derailed onto Interstate 5 on December 18, 2017.

Amtrak's CEO has given Oregon and Washington state officials a timeline for when the company will activate automatic safety braking systems in the Pacific Northwest. This is the technology many experts believe could have prevented last month's deadly train derailment south of Tacoma.

Amtrak told state legislators Wednesday that it is working to activate what's known as positive train control in the entire Cascade corridor "as soon as possible." Installation was already in progress before the December 18 train wreck because of a looming national deadline at the end of this year.

Amtrak Senior Government Affairs Manager Rob Eaton said sensors and radio links trackside, on locomotives and on a central server still need to be integrated.

"The testing and interaction of all three of these elements will take place during the second and third quarters of the year, after which PTC will be placed into operation,” he said.

Only then according to Washington state officials will passenger service resume on the faster bypass track along Interstate 5 where last month's derailment happened.

After the derailment, Amtrak passenger service reverted to its prior route along the shoreline of Puget Sound between Tacoma and Nisqually, Washington, which is shared with many freight trains.

Eaton said the introduction of the new safety system is complicated by the diffuse ownership of rail infrastructure on the Amtrak Cascades line. Three different railroads own sections of the tracks between the Canadian border and Eugene: BNSF, Union Pacific and Sound Transit. Additionally, ownership of the passenger train locomotives and carriages is divided among Amtrak and the states of Oregon and Washington.

Last week, Amtrak rolled back its recently expanded service between Seattle and Portland to the level that preceded the December derailment. The revised schedule offers four Amtrak Cascades daily roundtrips, down from the six roundtrips that launched on the morning of December 18.

Washington state legislators were told during a committee briefing Wednesday that PTC is not presently active on any Amtrak passenger service west of the Mississippi.

Eaton said everyone at Amtrak feels "deep sorrow" for the loss of life and injuries resulting from the December derailment south of Tacoma. He said federal rules to protect the integrity of the NTSB crash investigation prevented him from disclosing any facts Amtrak has learned about the crash cause.

Washington state Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar testified that there was not undue pressure to launch high speed rail service before train engineers and crews were adequately prepared to use the renovated Point Defiance Bypass route.

"There was no deadline for initiating service," Millar said. He acknowledged there were deadlines for completing construction on track and signal upgrades, but he said those were routine and not a factor.

In a separate development, Amtrak announced on Tuesday that it has hired a former Delta Air Lines executive to fill the newly created position of Chief Safety Officer. In a news release, the rail corporation said Ken Hylander will be responsible for implementing a "proactive risk management" and safety system to improve Amtrak's safety culture.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.