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Critics Question Why Amtrak Took So Long To Install Positive Train Control


The first funeral was held today for one of the victims of the Amtrak train derailment that happened Tuesday night. Eight people were killed. Federal investigators are still trying to figure out why the train was accelerating for a full minute as it approached a curve in Philadelphia. There are also new questions today about Amtrak's safety technology and why the company didn't move faster to activate it. From Philadelphia, NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: That technology is called positive train control. It's supposed to automatically slow down a train that's moving too fast.

CONGRESSMAN ANDY HARRIS: My understanding is that positive train control was installed and ready to be tested in that series of track.

ROSE: Democratic Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland says positive train control, or PTC, is already active on parts of the northeast corridor, which is Amtrak's most heavily-traveled route, but not on the stretch of track in North Philadelphia where train 188 derailed Tuesday night.

HARRIS: That's the section of Amtrak that actually generates income, that makes money. You would think that'd be the first part of the Amtrak system that actually has wall-to-wall PTC.

ROSE: Amtrak officials promised to have PTC in place on the entire Northeast corridor by the end of the year, but it's a complex and expensive problem, and Congress hasn't given Amtrak any extra money to do it. In fact, the House Appropriations Committee voted this week to cut Amtrak's $1.4 billion budget. Republican Congressman John Mica of Florida told CNN today that the railroad gets too much public money as it is.


CONGRESSMAN JOHN MICA: We've given Amtrak between a billion and a billion and a half almost every one of the years I've been in Congress. Amtrak takes the money we give them, squanders it.

JOSEPH SZABO: Actually, Amtrak is probably further along than most of the rail carriers around the nation.

ROSE: Joseph Szabo is a former head of the Federal Railroad Administration. He says Amtrak is making steady progress installing PTC.

SZABO: The very area where this accident occurred, you know, installation had already begun. And so Amtrak has been doing their due diligence and is certainly much further along than most passenger railroads in the nation.

ROSE: The last mangled train cars have been removed from the accident site. Federal investigators continue to probe why the train was going a hundred miles per hour before it derailed. National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt says the train's onboard data recorders show it was accelerating for a full minute before the derailment.

ROBERT SUMWALT: Sixty-five seconds before the end of the recording, the train speed went above 70 miles per hour. Forty-three seconds before the end of the recording, the train speed exceeded 80 miles per hour.

ROSE: The first funeral was held today for one of the victims. Twenty-year-old naval midshipman Justin Zemser was killed on his way home to Queens, N.Y. In Brooklyn, the campus of Medgar Evers College is mourning the loss of Derrick Griffith, the dean of Student Affairs. Griffith was 42, but in pictures, he looked younger, like one of the students he mentored.

RUDY CREW: He was a joyous person. He carried with him a sense of buoyancy about life. And so how he engaged with people always was framed by that joy.

ROSE: Rudy Crew is the college's president.

CREW: Even the toughest of situations - homeless students, students who didn't have food to eat given their own financial circumstances - whatever it was, there was just nothing he approached with a sense of frustration or, oh, my goodness one more, or any of that.

ROSE: Crew says Griffith had just completed the work for his Ph.D. in education, and he was set to walk in a graduation ceremony in a few weeks. Instead, Griffith will receive his doctorate during a memorial ceremony at Medgar Evers College's graduation this month. Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.