Amtrak safety, rail transit and infrastructure issues: Research roundup

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On May 12, 2015, an Amtrak regional train carrying nearly 250 people derailed near Philadelphia, killing eight. The Northeast Corridor (NEC) is by far the nation’s most heavily traveled train network, used by Amtrak and six other transit agencies as well as numerous freight companies. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has launched an investigation, but preliminary indications are that excessive speed was a factor in the crash.

As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a December 2013 report, a new safety system called “positive train control” (PTC) was supposed to be implemented by the end of 2015 precisely to prevent accidents caused by human factors. This system and its accompanying 2015 deadline were mandated under the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which was passed in response to several fatal rail accidents between 2002 and 2008. PTC is a “groundbreaking” wireless communications system comprised of “integrated technologies capable of preventing collisions, over-speed derailments and unintended train movements.” However, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), charged with overseeing PTC’s development and roll-out, had not implemented it on that stretch of rail, as  of Vox first noted.

“Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB, told Reuters.

The 2013 GAO report stated:

While FRA has long-term rail safety goals, its ability to meet those goals and respond to challenges is hampered by its lack of a strategic human capital plan. FRA officials stated that due to uncertainties about their budget, PTC implementation, and risk reduction plans, they plan for human capital needs in their annual budget request, rather than through a strategic human capital plan. However, without a plan, FRA may not make well informed decisions about its workforce needs including having inspectors with the right skills for its current oversight activities and enough specialists to oversee the rail industry’s implementation of PTC and safety risk reduction plans.

GAO noted in the 2013 report that, even more than two years before the PTC implementation deadline, “most railroads that are required to have PTC in place reported that they will not meet this deadline.”

Despite the importance of the NEC, Amtrak’s funding has long been a subject of controversy in Congress: The 2015 crash came the day before a scheduled meeting of a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee, which subsequently voted to cut the agency’s annual funding by nearly 20%, to $1.13 billion. While the relationship between overall budgeting and implementation of new safety technology is unclear, the December 2013 GAO report notes the following:

PTC implementation is a complex and costly endeavor that touches almost every part of major rail lines and almost every aspect of their train operations. According to FRA, railroads required to implement PTC must do so on over 60,000 miles of track nationwide. In addition, FRA has reported that railroads must design, produce and install more than 20 major PTC components, such as data radios for locomotive communication, locomotive management computers, and back-office servers as part of the PTC implementation…. Given the recent development of PTC, according to both FRA and railroad officials, there is not a large pool of expertise either inside or outside of FRA with extensive background in the operation of PTC systems…. Currently, FRA has ten PTC specialists, three other staff, and one supervisor who are responsible for reviewing and approving PTC system certification for the 37 railroads that will eventually be required to have operational, integrated PTC systems.

More than any other transportation system, trains are the sum of their rolling stock and the rail networks on which they travel, and much of the NEC was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s: New Jersey’s Portal Bridge was built in 1900, yet carries 450 trains and 150,000 riders daily; replacing it will cost $900 million. Many of the rail tunnels in New York were seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and fixes will cost billions. Bringing Amtrak’s assets up to a state of good repair is a massive task: In its 2013-17 plan, Amtrak called for $151 billion in capital investments.

Despite these challenges, Amtrak’s NEC service is both profitable and popular, with 11.3 million passengers in 2013. It’s also continuing to grow, even as vehicle-miles traveled in the NEC region have fallen since 2004. And relatively speaking, train travel is safe: A 2013 study in Research in Transportation Economics found that the overall fatality rate for passengers on long-distance train service was 0.15 per billion passenger miles — nearly 50 times safer than light trucks and cars, which had a fatality rate of 7.3 per billion miles in the United States. To examine accident and safety statistics for local and regional rail routes, see the Federal Rail Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis data tools.

Below is a selection of recent research and analysis relating to Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor that can help inform reporting on the system and its challenges:



“A New Alignment: Strengthening America’s Commitment to Passenger Rail”
Robert Puentes; Adie Tomer; Joseph Kan. Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution, March 2013.

Excerpt: “Amtrak experienced a significant increase in national ridership after 1997. Using Amtrak’s fiscal period of October to September, Amtrak’s total boardings and alightings jumped 55.1% from 1997 to 2012. To put this increase in perspective, it outstrips population growth (17.1%) more than threefold over the same period and exceeds the growth in real gross domestic product (37.2%). With Amtrak setting ridership records for nine of the past ten years, including the new all-time high in 2012, there is a great chance Amtrak’s passenger growth will continue to far outpace growth in population and GDP. In addition, Amtrak’s passenger growth also exceeds all other domestic transportation modes. The most appropriate modal comparison is domestic aviation, since Amtrak and major airlines compete along certain corridors. In this case, Amtrak more than doubled the growth in domestic aviation passengers (20.0%) over the same 16-year period. Similarly, Amtrak also far exceeded the growth in driving (measured by vehicle miles traveled per year; 16.5%) and transit trips (26.4%). All three modes do carry larger aggregate quantities of people, but these growth trends serve as evidence of changing attitudes toward train travel.

In addition to route length, having a direct connection between major metropolitan areas is another driver of higher Amtrak ridership. Across the past 15 years, a consistent group of 10 corridors, all less than 400 miles long, generate around 70% of total system ridership. Each of these routes involves many of the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas and benefit from the higher job and population densities present in those metropolitan cores. The Northeast Corridor is particularly notable in this respect, connected by the metropolitan anchors of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. These four metropolitan areas house over 35 million people, generate $2.3 trillion in annual output, and share historic and modern relationships. Similarly, all four metro areas suffer from high traffic volumes between them as well as the country’s most congested airspace (New York-Philadelphia), making the rails an attractive alternative to some of the country’s most delayed airports. Indeed, Amtrak boasts 75% of the share of the passenger rail/aviation market between New York and Washington.”


“State of the Northeast Corridor Region Transportation System”
Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission, Summary Report, February 2014.

Excerpt: “Available capacity on the highway, rail, and aviation networks is limited such that all three modes experience serious congestion levels with negative consequences for productivity and quality of life. Aging infrastructure, especially on the highway and rail networks, threatens to reduce the capacity we enjoy today. Existing plans and identified funding sources fail to fully address the capital needs for bringing our transportation system into a state of good repair or building new infrastructure to support growth in the economy. Despite these challenges, advances in technology and new types of intermodal and interjurisdictional coordination offer opportunities for modernizing our transportation system.”


“Amtrak Fiscal Years 2013-2017 Five-Year Plan”
National Railroad Passenger Corporation, May 2013

Background: “During FY2012 Amtrak carried a record 31.2 million passengers on as many as 307 daily intercity trains and approximately 21,000 route miles serving 513 communities in 46 states, the District of Columbia and 3 Canadian provinces. Approximately 900,000 people also commuted every weekday on Amtrak infrastructure or on Amtrak-operated commuter trains around the country under contracts with 15 states and 4 regional commuter authorities. Amtrak collected a record $1. 97 billion in ticket revenue in FY2012. When revenues from other sources such as real estate contracts and services for other railroads were included, Amtrak covered 88% of its operating costs. During the FY2013-FY2017 period, the company expects to fund 89% of its operating need from revenue sources other than Federal appropriations…. This share will increase as costs shift onto state partners in compliance with the requirement in Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA) to standardize the methodologies for the allocating, operating and capital costs . However, for the foreseeable future the company will require both operating support and capital support funding, and the Federal government will be the principal source for both.”


“Rail Safety: Improved Human Capital Planning Could Address Emerging Safety Oversight Challenges”
U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-14-85, December 2013.

Excerpt: “[The Federal Railroad Administration] (FRA) has developed a risk-based approach to direct its inspection efforts, but the agency has been slow to implement broader risk reduction planning. FRA has two tools to help direct its inspection efforts — the National Inspection Plan (NIP) and the Staffing Allocation Model (SAM). The NIP process uses past accident and other data to target FRA’s inspection activities, and the SAM estimates the best allocation of the different types of inspectors across FRA regions in order to minimize damage and casualties from rail accidents. However, all eight FRA regional administrators expressed concerns about FRA’s staffing process that relies primarily on the SAM to predict appropriate regional inspector needs, and that does not allow the flexibility needed to accommodate the regions’ changing resource needs. In addition, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated safety risk reduction plans primarily for large freight and passenger railroads. FRA has not yet issued the final rule directing railroads to develop the plans, which was mandated to be issued by October 2012. According to FRA, the rulemaking was delayed due to concerns by railroads over their potential liability. Although FRA anticipates completing approval of railroad’s plans by 2016, the agency has not developed an interim plan with specific timeframes to ensure that there are no further delays in issuing regulations and that timely evaluation and approval of the railroads’ risk reduction plans occurs.”


“Rail Safety: Preliminary Observations on Federal Rail Safety Oversight and Positive Train Control Implementation”
Susan A. Fleming. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Testimony before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate, June 2013.

Excerpt: “According to FRA officials, in the next 5 years, about 32% of FRA inspectors will be eligible to retire. Although FRA officials said that they anticipate being able to replace inspectors, it can take 1 to 2 years to find, hire, train, and certify a new inspector. Finally, FRA faces other ongoing and emerging safety challenges like addressing adverse weather conditions and their impact on railroad operations and equipment, educating the public on the potential hazards of rail-highway crossings, accommodating changes in rail safety risks including new freight flows that affect the need for inspections, and hiring and training a specialized inspector workforce to provide adequate safety oversight for emerging technologies including positive train control (PTC), a communications-based system designed to prevent train accidents caused by human factors…. FRA is a small agency relative to the railroad industry, making the railroads themselves the primary guarantors of railroad safety. Based on our work to date, FRA has about 470 inspectors in its headquarters and regional offices, in addition to about 170 state inspectors. In contrast, the U.S. railroad system consists of about 760 railroads with about 230,000 employees and 200,000 miles of track in operation.”


“Individual Freight Effects, Capacity Utilization and Amtrak Service Quality”
Betty Krier; Chia-Mei Liu; Brian McNamara; Jerrod Sharpe. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Vol. 64, June 2014, 163-175. doi: 10.1016/j.tra.2014.03.009

Excerpt: “We hypothesized the existence of a link between individual freight effects and Amtrak’s service quality in the post-deregulation rail industry. We tested the hypothesis with train delay models for long- and short-distance routes. Based on monthly panel data on 1117 directional Amtrak station-pairs for FY 2002 to 2007, we found that individual freight railroads had important effects on Amtrak delays. We also identified other significant delay causes. Among these, the capacity utilization rate, maintenance-related slow orders, and turn points are particularly important because of their potential to be improved upon through stakeholder actions. These findings also have policy implications. Despite the statute giving Amtrak trains priority on freight infrastructure, delays still differ significantly depending on the host railroad. It could be beneficial to look for solutions that further address the potential conflict of interest between freight railroads and Amtrak. For example, there is probably room to increase the effectiveness of the structures for incentive payments by Amtrak to the freights to reduce Amtrak’s train delays.”


“Railroad Safety: Amtrak Is Not Adequately Addressing Rising Drug and Alcohol Use by Employees in Safety-Sensitive Positions”
Office of the Inspector General, Amtrak. Report No. OIG-E-2012-023, September 2012.

Excerpt: “Amtrak’s HOS employees are testing positive for drugs and alcohol more frequently than their peers in the railroad industry. Our analysis of Amtrak’s random drug and alcohol test results shows that these employees have been testing positive for drugs and alcohol at a rate that has been generally trending upward since 2006, and this rate has exceeded the industry average for the past 5 years. The majority of Amtrak’s positive tests since 2006 were for drugs, primarily cocaine and marijuana. In 2011, Amtrak had 17 positive tests for drugs or alcohol, which resulted in a combined positive test rate that was about 51% above the industry average, its worst rate since 2007. The 2011 rate was driven by a relatively large number of positive tests by signals and mechanical employees that were both over four times the rate of their peers in the industry. Based on the random test data, we calculated, with 95% confidence, that if all 4,454 HOS employees had been tested in 2011, between 21 and 65 of these employees would have tested positive for drug use, with a best estimate of 43 employees. We also calculated that between 4 and 32 of Amtrak’s HOS employees would have tested positive for alcohol use, with a best estimate of 18 employees.

Amtrak is not exercising due diligence to control the use of drugs and alcohol by these employees. Until we presented Amtrak’s key senior management with our preliminary results, they were unaware of the extent of drug and alcohol use by these employees. Further, senior management is not actively engaged in the program, nor have they demonstrated that controlling drugs and alcohol is a clear priority at Amtrak, thereby making it difficult to manage the risk that drug and alcohol use poses to its employees, passengers and the public. Amtrak also did not adequately address, for several years, FRA’s concerns about Amtrak’s program to physically observe HOS employees for signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol use. Consequently, FRA has stated that it may elevate enforcement actions against Amtrak up to and including fining Amtrak in the future if the number of observations is not improved. This may become more challenging because the number of HOS employees requiring observation may increase by 2,260 in 2013 due to potential changes in the regulation.”


“Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor”
National Railroad Passenger Corporation, 2012

Background: “Since the 2010 release of the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan and A Vision for High-Speed Rail in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak has continued to advance Northeast Corridor program planning and stakeholder outreach along the Corridor. At the heart of this continuing effort was the creation of an integrated NEC Capital Investment Program, which brings together the comprehensive work from the Master Plan and 2010 HSR Vision into a single program focused on delivering near-term improvements while advancing long-term capacity expansion and performance upgrades for high-speed rail and other services…. Concurrently, other significant initiatives, including the organization of the NEC Infrastructure & Operations Advisory Commission and the initiation of the Federal Railroad Administration’s NEC Future: Passenger Rail Corridor Investment Plan, have helped to further advance NEC planning and development initiatives. This update report outlines these recent developments in NEC planning and highlights key findings related to how Amtrak can translate various strategies and concepts for the growth and improvement of the NEC into reality.


Keywords: railroad, mass transit, rail crossing, infrastructure spending, Northeast Corridor, NEC, technology

Last updated: May 13, 2015


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