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Speed control system 'could have prevented fatal Amtrak train crash'

Speed control technology which could have prevented a fatal train derailment near the US city of Seattle was not active at the time of the crash, authorities have said.

Work to install the GPS-based system known as positive train control is not expected to be completed until next spring on the newly opened 15-mile span where the Amtrak train came off the tracks, killing three people and injuring dozens more, according to Sound Transit, the public body which owns the line.

The rest of the project was "under a very aggressive schedule", according to documents posted on Sound Transit's website.

The terms and conditions for funding the 180.7 million dollar (£135 million) project, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, required track, signal and other infrastructure work be completed by June 30, the documents said.

Even a one-month delay would "significantly impact the project".

The train in Monday's crash in Washington state was travelling at 80mph in a 30mph zone when it raced off the rails as they curved toward a bridge, hurtling train cars onto a busy road below, investigators said.

Federal investigators are looking into whether the engineer was distracted.

A positive train control system could have detected the speeding and automatically applied the brakes to stop the train, said Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California professor who has studied the technology for three decades.

"It is another layer of safety," he said.

Amtrak and the Washington Department of Transportation started publicising the switch to the new route in October.

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said that "no-one wants PTC more than me", but would not directly answer questions about why it is taking so long to get the speed-control technology up and running across the board.

"I'm a huge believer in positive train control," he said at a news conference.

"It just makes so much scientific sense."

Mr Anderson said the company's safety culture can continue to improve and said the crash should be seen as a "wake-up call".

He added: "It's not acceptable that we're involved in these types of accidents."

US rail is under government orders to install positive train control by the end of 2018 after the industry lobbied US Congress to extend earlier deadlines, citing complexity and cost.

Union Pacific, the nation's largest freight carrier, said it was spending about 2.9 billion dollars (£2.1 billion) on the technology. Industry groups estimate rail firms will spend about 10 billion dollars (£7.4 billion) to install and implement the systems.

The crash is just the latest example of a deadly crash that experts say could have been prevented if the technology were in place to slow down the train when engineers go too fast, get distracted or fall ill.

US investigators have listed a lack of such systems as a contributing factor in at least 25 crashes over the last 20 years, including two in the last four years where a train approached sharp curves at more than double the speed limit.

A Metro-North train crashed in New York City in 2013, killing four people, when an engineer with sleep apnoea dozed off.

An Amtrak train crashed in Philadelphia in 2015, killing eight people, when investigators say the engineer was distracted by radio traffic and lost his bearings.

AP

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