An Amtrak train headed for New York derailed this week in Philadelphia — killing seven people and injuring more than 200.
Various reports indicate that excessive speed likely contributed to the derailment.
Unfortunately, according to Reuters, an advanced technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) that’s designed to prevent high-speed derailments and train-to-train collisions, was not in operation on the Northeast Corridor line at the time of the crash.
Using satellites, PTC technology has the ability warn those in control of the train. If there’s no response, the tech can automatically slow down or even stop trains that are moving too fast — or approaching a dangerous area at too high a speed.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, PTC technology is expected to be installed on roughly 70,000 miles of track in the US.
The US government has mandated that railroads adopt the technology by year’s end. But federal officials told Reuters that Amtrak has not completed the installation of the PTC tech, and that the system is not yet operational.
So what happens if PTC is fails or isn’t available?
Fortunately for train passengers, there’s another technology that could diminish the force of a future crash.
It’s found on a limited number of passenger lines in the US. It features train cars with “crumple zones,” similar to what’s found in cars, and is part of a suite of technologies known as “crash energy management” (CEM).
Other forms of CEM technology include advanced couplings mechanisms, shock absorbers, and bumpers.
The crumple zones work by absorbing or redistributing a significant portion of the crash energy before it reaches the passengers. Although, this sort of tech is most commonly associated with automobiles, it has proven itself to be effective in trains.
Earlier this year, a CEM equipped Metrolink train crashed into an abandoned truck near Oxnard, California. The incident caused several of the cars to violently derail, sending 30 people to the hospital. But, no one died. In the aftermath, Metrolink officials told the AP that the crash would have been much worse without the CEM technology.
In fact, crash research conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration shows that trains equipped with CEM crush zone technology can “improve crash worthiness significantly.”
So why isn’t this life-saving technology more commonly used?
The critical issue is money.
Incorporating CEM technology isn’t as simple as installing aftermarket accessories to an existing train. Rather, such features must be integrated into the basic design.
This means operators would have to put money into new equipment — a move that anyone with millions invested in existing technology might hesitate to make.
According to the AP, CEM technology is currently in use by Amtrak in its Acela high speed trains, as well as certain trains in service in Texas.
However, based on the media reports of the this week’s Philadelphia derailment, it doesn’t look like the train cars involved were equipped with CEM. Images of the passenger compartments suggest that the derailed train was made up of Amtrak’s Amfleet cars, which date to the 1970s.
Business Insider has reached out to Amtrak for confirmation and will update this post when we’ve received word.
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