Lack of train control system on Tacoma route unacceptable

Christmas in Tacoma wouldn’t be the same without the annual Model Train Festival, opening Friday at the Washington State History Museum. Visitors can celebrate our rich local railroad history, laid out in intricate detail with a holiday theme. Soothed by the circular rhythms, you can enjoy tiny passenger and freight trains moving with the precision of a Nutcracker ballet.

For an hour or two, you might even forget that real-life train travel isn’t so pretty or predictable. At times, it can get downright messy, as with Monday’s tragic derailment of an Amtrak train near DuPont. The accident claimed three lives, injured more than 100 people and blocked freeway traffic for more than two days due to train cars that fell on southbound lanes below.

All three men killed were train buffs aboard the maiden run of Amtrak 501 on the long-awaited Point Defiance Bypass. Benjamin Gran, Jim Hamre and Zack Willhoite were the kind of enthusiasts you might find at the Model Train Festival.

America’s sprawling rail network will never perform with the flick-of-a-switch gracefulness of a model railroad. But it would be exponentially better with automated braking and other features of a federally mandated safety system, known as Positive Train Control, or PTC.

The public should be unnerved that the Seattle-Portland Amtrak route is equipped with PTC, but was running without it and wasn’t set to start using it on this section until sometime next year.

Reports indicate Monday’s 14-car train took a sharp curve, clocked at 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, before zooming across a freeway bridge north of Nisqually. Among other things, investigators are looking into whether the engineer was distracted. Whatever the cause, an operational PTC system would have taken over and slowed the train.

Railroad safety expert and former engineer John Hyatt, interviewed on CNN Monday, likened the satellite-based system to an “angel on the shoulder” for train operators. “If there was no Positive Train Control in effect there, then shame on them,” he said.

Amtrak officials say they intended to activate PTC on the new inland corridor by spring 2018. But after nearly a decade planning the high-speed bypass, then scrambling to meet an aggressive deadline to open the line in 2017, the technology delay is unacceptable. A route that bisects urban communities and crosses the freeway should’ve had this precaution in place from day one.

Amtrak has made it a priority on the East Coast; it should be a priority here, too.

A devastating 2008 collision between a passenger train and a freight train in Los Angeles prompted Congress to order PTC installed on all major rail lines by 2015. But railroads lobbied against what they see as an unfunded mandate plagued with technical issues. Congress relented, moving the deadline to next year and in some cases to 2020.

Washington’s congressional delegation ought to seize this opportunity to push for greater rail safety measures in the Northwest. Two non-injury close calls followed by this week’s deadly wreck give them plenty of evidence. In June 2016, an oil train unequipped with electronic brakes derailed in the Columbia River Gorge and spilled 42,000 gallons of crude. And in July this year, an Amtrak train derailed near Chambers Bay golf course after approaching a drawbridge too fast.

Meantime, the inland bypass should be sidelined for the duration of the federal investigation — and for as long as it takes to assure the public the new route is safe.

Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday that Amtrak’s president told him he would strive to have PTC running here before the end of 2018. Pressure must be applied to make sure Amtrak beats the deadline.

Shaving 10 minutes off a trip to Portland isn’t worth the terrible loss of life and blood our region endured Monday.

For now, train lovers will be glad to return to the easy familiarity of the scenic waterfront route — or, even easier, a day at Tacoma’s Model Train Festival.