They’re called “dark territory,” stretches of track that lack not only sophisticated safety systems such as positive train control designed to automatically stop a train, but even the green and red signals that tell an engineer whether the track is clear.
In the wake of two recent fatal accidents, Amtrak’s CEO Richard Anderson told a Congressional panel earlier this month that the passenger railroad “will change how we operate through sections of track with no signals at all, so-called ‘dark territory,’ which is also exempted from the PTC mandate.”
Anderson said Amtrak trains currently travel over 222 miles of dark territory track nationwide, about one percent of its routes. At least some of that track is in New York, Vermont and Quebec, and is used by the Adirondack and Ethan Allen Express services, according to two industry sources. Freight railroads own most of the track over which Amtrak operates.
The two segments lacking signals carry the Ethan Allen Express from the Canadian Pacific mainline in Whitehall to Rutland, Vt., and the Adirondack on a Canadian National spur from the Canadian Pacific mainline at Rouses Point into Quebec and toward Montreal.
In both cases, the tracks are otherwise lightly traveled, so the risk of a collision, such as one early in February in South Carolina involving an Amtrak train that killed an engineer and conductor, is minimal, these sources said.
The Adirondack operates at just 10 mph over parts of the CN spur, while the Ethan Allen Express has the line to itself during the day. The two freight trains that use it, said Selden Houghton, vice president of track owner Vermont Rail System, operate at night.
Dispatchers, guided by a computerized dispatch system, communicate with engineers by radio or phone. The railroad has a PTC exemption for the Ethan Allen, Houghton said.
Anderson, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, told the earlier panel that “we believe it’s time to reevaluate the risks that accompany such operations.
“Based on hazard analyses and mitigation options, the application of new technologies like switch
position indicators; altered operating practices; signal system and PTC investments or rerouting
or route abandonments may all be appropriate for such dark territory,” Anderson said.
And he said that for host railroads that haven’t made enough progress installing PTC even for an extension of the year-end deadline, “Amtrak will suspend operations until such time as the carrier becomes compliant with the law.”