EDITORIAL: Is it safer yet?

IT FEELS AWKWARD pointing out positive news regarding Amtrak while the extent of the disastrous passenger train crash in Washington state is still unfolding. The best argument for bringing up the subject now is to reassure myself that train travel remains relatively safe and to ask why it isn’t safer.

The train in Washington was apparently traveling at almost three times the speed limit when it derailed. One of the first questions raised by news organizations and safety experts was whether that train’s locomotive was equipped with a system called Positive Train Control (PTC), which is designed to automatically slow a train traveling too fast. Amtrak says the PTC wasn’t in use when the crash happened.

Amtrak owns the rails from Poughkeepsie to a point northwest of Albany. These are the tracks that pass through Hudson, the third busiest train station in the state. That’s not a misprint, but let’s deal with safety first. Amtrak’s Empire Service between New York City and Buffalo also uses the tracks of other railroads. South of Poughkeepsie the tracks are the responsibility of the Metro-North, part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA. Are trains on those tracks using PTC? Not yet.

Installation of PTC was required to begin following passage of a federal law in 2008. All trains were supposed to use it by 2015. Funding was delayed and the railroads couldn’t or wouldn’t complete the job on time, so they were granted an extension until the end of 2018, a year from now. The news website lohud.com reported last week that progress reports filed by Metro-North indicate that the railroad cannot meet the 2018 deadline.

Positive Train Control uses a GPS system, sensors on locomotives and tracks. Hundreds of railroad personnel must be trained to operate this complex technology. There’s money set aside for MTA and Amtrak to do this. U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand as well as Congressman Paul Tonko (D-20th), whose district includes the City of Rensselaer, where the Albany station is located, announced a grant last spring of more than $33 million from the federal government to install a PTC system along 94 miles of the Empire Service Corridor.

Amtrak has been working on the installation of PTC in this region. But if it’s operating, we haven’t heard. A call to Amtrak regional headquarters yielded a promise to answer whether trains here have PTC, but there was nothing to report by press time.

This is more than an academic debate over a technology that most rail passengers will never notice. There are 26 Amtrak stations in New York state (27 if you count both Penn Station and Grand Central in New York City) and Hudson is the third busiest. Of the 12.5 million passengers who passed through an Amtrak station in this state over the past year, more than 10 million of them went through Penn Station. The next busiest station was Albany-Rensselaer with 803,348.

And then forget about your Buffalo, Rochester or Syracuse stations, not to mention Poughkeepsie, Schenectady or Saratoga Springs. Hudson earns the third place bronze medal with 217,970 passengers annually. Albany saw a drop in rail passengers over the last year while Hudson experienced a nearly 6% increase.

That’s an additional 12,051 people who traveled to or from Hudson in 2017 compared to the year before. These visitors provide a major source of revenue for our county. Keeping these visitors and commuters safe is not only the right thing to do, it’s an economic necessity.

Not everywhere in the country is lucky enough to have, like us, an Amtrak station nearby with regular service to places lots of people want to go. What’s more, rail travel is less hazardous per mile traveled than driving in a car, though recent accidents make train travel seem more dangerous than it is.

But it could be safer. Much safer. And there’s no good reason why it isn’t.

We take a short break

THIS ISSUE is our annual double issue with our winter-long events calendar: What’s Happening This Winter. This double issue of The Columbia Paper will be on newsstands for two weeks. So next week there won’t be a separate paper in your mailbox.

Our hibernation is brief. We resume our regular publication schedule January 4, 2018.

Thank you for your support over the last year. All of us here wish you, our readers, a happy holiday and an equally happy new year.

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