When a speeding Amtrak train jumped the tracks in Philadelphia in May, killing eight people, news of the crash sent chills through many Chicagoans. Just a few months earlier, Amtrak’s CEO had warned that “investments must be made in the tracks, tunnels, bridges, and other infrastructure . . . particularly on the Northeast Corridor and in Chicago.” Could a deadly passenger train derailment occur here too?

One already has. On a Saturday morning in September 2005, a Metra train heading north on the Rock Island line to the LaSalle Street station careened off the rails near 47th Street. Like the crashed Amtrak train, it had been zooming far faster than the speed limit (69 mph on a 10 mph section of track). Most of the 185 passengers were injured; two were killed. (Had the accident occurred during the weekday rush, the death toll would almost certainly have been higher.) The National Transportation Safety Board cited “engineer inattentiveness” as a cause and named a potential solution to such inattentiveness: a positive train control system.

Standard in much of Europe, PTC systems are technically complex but conceptually simple. Devices installed in both the trains and the tracks use radio signals to communicate with one another, automatically slowing or stopping a train if conductor makes a mistake. Which is a real concern. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number one cause of rail accidents in the United States from 2000 to 2009 was “human factors” (35 percent), followed by track problems (32 percent).

In 2008, three years after the Metra derailment, Congress mandated that every railway operator in the nation install PTC by the end of 2015. But few will come anywhere near meeting that deadline, including Metra, the commuter rail division of the Regional Transportation Authority, which operates most of the tracks in the Chicago area. Metra chairman Martin Oberman estimates that PTC won’t be in place here for four more years, at a projected cost of about $400 million, plus another $20 million a year to operate. (And you wondered why Metra fares went up 11 percent in February.)

Ironically, Amtrak hopped to it more quickly than most other operators. For example, it has been using PTC on its relatively high-speed route between Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Porter, Indiana, for more than a decade. But within Chicago, Amtrak runs mostly on freight and Metra lines, owning only a smidgen of low-speed track downtown near Union Station.

As you might imagine, the biggest reason for the delay is a lack of money. Though legislators mandated PTC, they didn’t grant any funds to install it. What’s more, federal spending on infrastructure in general dried up after the Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, which forced passenger railway operators to make difficult budget decisions. “Progress on national funding for rail has been really limited,” says Yonah Freemark, a project manager at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council. “And that’s negatively affected the ability of the railroads to implement PTC quickly.”

Bottom line: Until PTC is installed, deadly derailments like the one in Philadelphia are possible. But if you like to play the odds, keep taking Metra to work. According to a recent study by Ian Savage, an economics professor at Northwestern University and a transportation expert, someone who drives a car 30 miles every day for a year is 17 times more likely to die in a crash than someone covering the same distance by train.


By the Numbers


Chicago’s rank among the nation’s largest rail hubs (No. 2: Kansas City)


Number of freight trains that move through the city each day


Number of passenger trains that move through each day


Number of people on those passenger trains

SOURCE: Chicago Department of Transportation