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Forum - Positive Train Control: Is It On Track? - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Forum - Positive Train Control:  Is It On Track? - Chairman's Opening Remarks

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Christopher Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener.

We are here today to talk about railroad safety and positive train control and preventing train collisions and derailments.

Yesterday, the Board held an investigative hearing on the June 24, 2012, head-on collision between two Union Pacific trains while operating on straight track near Goodwell, Oklahoma. The eastbound train was traveling about 58 mph and the westbound train was traveling about 21 mph when they struck each other. The collision killed three crewmembers and injured the fourth crewmember.

Since I joined the board in 2004, the NTSB has investigated 22 other train accidents that took 57 lives, injured more than 1,000, caused millions of dollars in damages, and that all could have been prevented or mitigated by positive train control.

Positive train control is not the next new thing. Technology that automatically intervenes to prevent train collisions has been around in some form or another since early in the 20th century. Grady Cothen, who joins us today, traces the early forerunners of PTC to the 1920s.

Yet, more than a decade into the 21st century, we're still hearing that PTC can't be done, that it's too costly and that it's too difficult. It needs more time.

More time: The NTSB first recommended an advanced train control system, a PTC predecessor, in 1970. That was one year after Neil Armstrong took his small step on the moon and eight years after President Kennedy issued the challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

More time: Then, two decades later, in 1990, the NTSB put positive train control on our first Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

More time: Fast forward two more decades and everyone here today - everyone involved in railroad safety - knows that the 2008 deadly Metrolink-UP collision near Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured about 100, wasn't the first accident to ignite a debate about mandating PTC.

But, it was the last accident that forced the PTC mandate.

What caused that Southern California collision? The Metrolink engineer's failure to observe and appropriately respond to a red signal. Why? Human error. He was texting.

In the NTSB's nearly half century of investigating railroad accidents, we have seen mechanical defects, maintenance issues and track failures, but the biggest safety challenge is human error. This is why we have long called for PTC.

And, it's why, within weeks of the Chatsworth collision, Congress passed and President Bush signed into law the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 calling for the implementation of PTC.

More time: The act gave railroads seven years to implement the provisions of the law.

We are frustrated with the slow pace of implementing something we know will save lives. We also recognize many of your frustrations. The NTSB does not perform cost benefit analysis and we do not implement the recommendations we issue. We acknowledge that there are real hurdles to clear - in particular, for public operators who do not have the available capital they need to not only maintain but now to upgrade their systems.

The contention and disagreement about PTC covers the classic questions: what, where, when, who and how.

This is why we called this forum today. We are bringing together luminaries in railroad policy, operations and technology to shine a light on PTC implementation - to enlighten us once again on the challenges and on the solutions.

We are doing this for the same reason that drives everything we do. We know the answer to why PTC implementation is essential. PTC will drive down the accident rate, save lives and prevent injuries.

At the NTSB, we can't implement positive train control, but until you do I can guarantee that we will continue to investigate accidents that could have been prevented by PTC.

Now, I will turn to my colleague, Member Robert Sumwalt, who has done an excellent job organizing this forum by consulting with our colleagues and working closely with our staff. Member Sumwalt.