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In the first hours after the Amtrak crash outside Philadelphia on May 12, 2015, some people looked to blame Congress for failing to fund critical infrastructure improvements. But the talking points changed when the nation learned the engineer was speeding.
"Breaking tonight, 106 miles per hour," Megyn Kelly opened her May 13 Fox News show. "That is how fast the NTSB says an Amtrak train was traveling just moments before flying off the rails in Philadelphia last night. And while some of the wounded are still being treated and other passengers are still unaccounted for, there has been a predictable but no less despicable rush to turn this crash into a political talking point."
Kelly then played a montage of Democrats and one Oklahoma Republican mayor saying the crash was a wake-up call to invest in infrastructure. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said, "Last night we failed them. We failed to invest in their safety."
Kelly said this blaming of "stingy Republicans" poured out before the fact was known that the train was more than two-times over the speed limit as it entered a curve. While a technology called positive train control (PTC) could have slowed the train in the case of human error, its absence in the Philadelphia crash, Kelly said, had nothing to do with Congress refusing to allocate money.
"Congress had already mandated that it be installed, and it's being installed on all these tracks," Kelly said. "They hadn't gotten to this particular track yet. And according to our information, that wasn't driven by a lack of funding. It just takes a while. They just passed it in the recent past. So they were working on it. So it's not a failure of infrastructure. It's a failure of an engineer to obey the speed limit."
The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to investigate the reason behind the crash. But we wanted to dig into her claim about the lack of positive train control on that section of rail -- and whether congressional funding was an issue.
What we found is that yes, Amtrak and Congress have been working for years to implement positive train control. And yes, the braking system -- which National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said would have prevented the crash -- is on schedule to be installed by the end of the year. But money from Congress could have pushed up that timetable, specifically when it comes to purchasing radio frequencies necessary for the braking program to work.
The braking system and and the Amtrak crash
Positive train control is a system that uses transponders on the tracks to communicate with controls on a passing locomotive. If the train is moving too fast, the system slows it down. Amtrak released a statement after the Philadelphia crash saying that "installation is largely complete south of Newark, N.J., but the system is only in service on 50 miles of the 226-mile route between Washington and New York."
The statement said Amtrak is on schedule to have the system fully operational on the Northeast Corridor by the end of 2015. That, Amtrak said, will meet a deadline set by Congress in 2008.
Put another way, the hardware for the new braking system was largely in place (though not specifically at the site of the crash). What was left was the final work to connect it to the trains and activate the system.
PTC installation and funding
The core of Kelly’s claim is that the installation of the PTC braking system was not about funding. To back that up, Fox News sent us a Reuters article about delays in implementing PTC nationwide.
"Federal rules require the national rail network to have an operating PTC system by the end of the year, though many lawmakers have endorsed rail industry appeals for more time to comply," the article said. "In March, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to extend the deadline for implementing PTC until at least 2020. Both Republicans and Democrats supported the measure, which will now go to the Senate floor."
That extension, however, served the needs of the freight and commuter rail companies who were unable to get their systems up and running by the end of 2015. Amtrak was a different story.
David Hughes was Amtrak’s chief engineer until 2005 and now consults in the railroad industry. "Amtrak may be the only major railroad to meet the original 2015 deadline," Hughes told PunditFact.
Amtrak’s specific system is called the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System. A heavy duty plastic transponder tied to a cross-tie in the track sends speed and location information to the locomotive, which in turn radios that data to a ground control station. If something is going wrong, the ground control station sends a command via radio back to the locomotive, forcing it to slow down.
Amtrak had this system fully operational north of New York City, and was close to putting it online in the section between New York City and Washington, D.C.
The question is, would money have advanced the timeline?
Karl Witbeck is consulting engineer with the Stantec firm. "No doubt the lack of capital funding has paid a large role in the delay of finishing the implementation of PTC for Amtrak," Witbeck said.
Witbeck studied a key link in the warning system, the radio communications needed to connect the ground control station with the trains. Witbeck, along with the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General, highlighted the lack of accessible, available radio frequencies as the single greatest barrier to completing the automatic braking system for all railroads, not just Amtrak.
In 2012, the Amtrak Office of Inspector General called the radio link the "most serious challenge" to implementing the braking system.
Why? When Congress mandated that every railroad in the country have PTC by 2015, it failed to require that the Federal Communication Commission set aside radio frequencies for the railroads to use. That sent railroad operators such as Amtrak out into the private market on a hunt for frequencies.
The inspector general report said that Amtrak "faces the prospect of having to stitch together enough licenses in the 220 megahertz (MHz) range through piecemeal acquisitions, county-by-county, to ensure coverage along the NEC (Northeast Corridor)."
Acquiring that coverage costs money, and this is where the story gets complicated. In its 2012 report and in a follow-up a year later, Amtrak’s inspector general aimed many criticisms at Amtrak’s inability to manage its capital investment projects.
While the 2012 report said a "significant challenge is ensuring that Amtrak has enough funds available to implement PTC fully by the deadline," it underscored that Amtrak needed to request the funds for radio frequencies at least a year and a half before it planned to spend them, and Amtrak didn’t seem to be doing that.
The request was missing from the railroad’s five-year financial plan and, according to the report, the cost estimates were "potentially incomplete and unreliable."
We also found that Amtrak stopped listing PTC in its Fiscal Year 2014 and 2015 requests to Congress.
In 2013, Amtrak’s inspector general skewered managers for failing to set clear priorities for its capital projects. It noted that the board had approved over $3 million to repair locomotives that were due to be replaced. Specific to PTC, it found that while the board had approved spending about $10 million in one year to knit together Amtrak’s system with that of the freight and commuter railroads, managers signed a multiyear contract costing $59 million.
Clearly, Amtrak had internal problems managing its capital projects, including the system that could have prevented the fatal crash near Philadelphia.
On the other hand, Congress has consistently given Amtrak about 60 percent of the money it requested each year to invest in its infrastructure.
(Sources: General capital figures in Amtrak business plans, budget requests, and appropriations bills)
The inspector general report noted that Amtrak’s "needs have exceeded the level of funding that it received each year."
In the view of Hughes and Witbeck, Amtrak has always had to juggle how it would spend its capital budget and resolving the final issue of buying radio bandwidth for PTC was part of that.
Kelly said that the lack of a working fail-safe braking system at the site of the Philadelphia Amtrak crash, "wasn't driven by a lack of funding. It just takes a while. They (Congress) just passed it in the recent past."
Congress actually passed the rule in 2008. The basis of Kelly’s claim was an article that said Congress had granted an extension for railroads to implement a positive train control system. But that extension had much to do with freight and commuter rail operators, not Amtrak.
Amtrak is moving forward with its own braking system, and says it will be fully operational by the end of the year. Experts said additional resources to purchase radio frequencies needed to make the system work could have sped up the roll-out.
Moreover, while Amtrak has been criticized for how it spends money on capital projects, it has consistently been funded at levels below what it has requested.
Kelly’s statement is partially accurate. We rate it Half True.
Fox News, The Kelly File, May 13, 2015
Reuters, Derailed Amtrak Train Lacked Latest U.S. Safety Controls, May 13, 2015
Mediaite, Megyn Kelly Goes Off on Amtrak Reactions: ‘How Exactly Did the Infrastructure Fail?’, May 13, 2015
Amtrak Office of Inspector General, Planned Changes Should Improve Amtrak’s Capital Planning Process, and Further Adoption of Sound Business Practices Will Help Optimize the Use of Limited Capital Funds, Sept. 27, 2013
Amtrak Office of Inspector General, Amtrak Has Made Progress in Implementing Positive Train Control, but Significant Challenges Remain, Dec. 20, 2012
APTA International, Positive Train Control in the 220 MHz Band, April 17, 2012
Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, Amtrak's Fiscal Year 2014 Budget: The Starting Point for Reauthorization, April 11, 2013
Federal Railroad Administration, Report to Congress: Positive Train Control Implementation Status, Issues, and Impacts, August 2012
Federal Railroad Administration, House testimony of administrator Joseph Szabo, April 11, 2013
Federal Railroad Administration, FY 2009 House appropriations testimony, Feb. 26, 2008
Amtrak, Fiscal Year 2012 Grant and Legislative Request, February 7, 2011
Amtrak, Fiscal Year 2012 Budget and Comprehensive Business Plan, January 2012
Amtrak, Fiscal Year 2013 Budget and Comprehensive Business Plan, May 2013
Amtrak, Fiscal Year 2013 Grant and Legislative Request, February 1, 2012
Amtrak, Annual Report Fiscal Year 2013
Amtrak, Fiscal Year 2014 Grant and Legislative Request, March 27, 2013
Amtrak, Fiscal Year 2015 Grant and Legislative Request, March 18, 2014
Interview, Carly Shanahan, spokeswoman, Fox News, May 18, 2015
Email interview, Karl Witdeck, principal -transportation, Stantec, May 18, 2015
Email interview, Marc Magliari, spokesman, Amtrak Government Affairs, May 14, 2015
Email interview, David Hughes, former chief engineer, Amtrak, May 18, 2015
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