The leader of a train advocacy group in Maine said an accident like the fatal crash in Philadelphia on Tuesday night is unlikely on the Amtrak Downeaster because engineers on the service between Brunswick and Boston are vigilant about not exceeding the line’s 79 mph speed limit.
Wayne Davis, chairman of TrainRiders/Northeast, said Wednesday night that the Downeaster can go up to 125 mph, but the current track configuration can not safely accommodate speeds higher than 79 mph, and only in certain sections.
The train that crashed in Philadelphia, killing at least seven people and injuring more than 200, had been going 106 mph before it went off the rails on a curve where the speed limit is 50 mph.
Davis wouldn’t speculate on why the engineer in Philadelphia was traveling more than twice the speed limit, but said Downeaster engineers are keenly aware of the 79 mph rule and know where they must go slower.
“An engineer is not about to mess with federal law,” he said. “No one in their right mind would exceed the (79 mph) speed limit.”
All Amtrak engineers are monitored by GPS tracking systems, according to Patricia Quinn, executive director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, which contracts with Amtrak to operate the Downeaster.
“Keeping to the required speed limits is something that is strictly monitored and enforced,” Quinn said Wednesday night. “They take these regulations and rules very seriously. There are many checks and balances.”
She wasn’t aware of any Downeaster engineers being cited for speed violations.
Despite Tuesday’s tragic crash, Davis remains convinced in the safety and efficiency of rail travel and would someday like to see the Downeaster be authorized to travel up to 110 mph. He believes that, with the proper upgrades, running faster trains between Brunswick, Portland and Boston would increase ridership.
“All it would take is for Congress to allocate the money,” Davis said, acknowledging that the rail line would have to undergo major improvements, such as a new signaling system and track upgrades. “It’s our goal to someday raise the Amtrak Downeaster speed to 110 mph. Time is money to people.”
By making the trip from Portland to Boston much quicker – it now takes the Downeaster about 2 hours, 25 minutes – more people would take the train, Davis said. The 110 mph speed could reduce the trip to two hours. An express going that speed and making two stops would arrive in just over an hour, Davis said.
TrainRiders/Northeast is a nonprofit that was formed in 1989 to bring modern and efficient passenger rail service to Northern New England.
Quinn is skeptical that the funds needed to upgrade the Portland to Boston rail line to allow higher speeds will become available in the near future.
“It’s not something we are pursuing,” she said.