Reprinted from Truthdig
In the public eye, the disaster on the rails last week in Philadelphia was not only tragic but also shocking. As a crowded Amtrak train approached a bend in the track, it was barreling along at more than 100 miles an hour -- twice the mandated speed for that section. The resulting derailment killed eight people, highlighting grave deficiencies in Amtrak's safety system.
But while Amtrak officials may have been devastated, they could not have been surprised: The accident confirmed clear vulnerabilities in the safety system, shortcomings that the rail company's internal watchdog had been warning about for more than two years.
In a December 2012 report, Amtrak's inspector general wrote that "formidable" and "significant challenges" were delaying deployment of a safety system known as Positive Train Control, which identifies cars that are traveling at excessive speeds and automatically slows their progress. Four years earlier, Congress had required that Amtrak and other American rail companies add the technology to their operations, but only a fraction of the rail systems were by then covered. Had the PTC technology been in place in Philadelphia, federal regulators say, the derailment might well have been prevented.
The inspector general's 2012 report zeroed in on one missing element that was crucial to the broader deployment of the safety system: Amtrak had for years failed to acquire adequate rights to broadcast communications signals through the public airwaves. Without these so-called spectrum rights, Amtrak's trains could not communicate with the electronic brains of the safety system, preventing its use along key stretches of track. This lack of spectrum had become the "most serious challenge" in the railroad's efforts to deploy the safety equipment more broadly, Amtrak's watchdog warned.