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Feds Order Amtrak To Turn On System That Would've Prevented Crash 393

McGruber writes: Last Tuesday evening, northbound Amtrak Northeast Regional train No. 188 derailed on a curve in Philadelphia, killing eight passengers. The train was traveling in excess of 100 mph, while the curve had a passenger-train speed limit of 50 mph. In response, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is issuing formal emergency orders that will require Amtrak to make sure automatic train control systems work Northbound through Philadelphia at and near the site of the derailment. The FRA is also requiring that Amtrak assess the risk of all curves along the NEC and increase the amount and frequency of speed limit signs along the railroad. FRA's emergency order is newsworthy because Amtrak's existing signal system could have been configured to prevent a train from exceeding speed limits, according to the Wall Street Journal.
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Feds Order Amtrak To Turn On System That Would've Prevented Crash

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 18, 2015 @07:33AM (#49716711)

    I'm baffled that we just might get self driving cars before self driving trains.

    Do I really have to state the obvious? It's on *rails*.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by bluegutang ( 2814641 )

      Self-driving trains exist. Vancouver's subway is self-driving. But installing the self-driving signalling system on existing rail lines is expensive. And unions oppose anything that will decrease the number of railway workers. Since a single union has a monopoly on transit work in each city, they have immense power and get essentially anything that they want.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 18, 2015 @08:34AM (#49716977)

        Unions should fight this, because technology obviously decreases the amount of work people can do, but there's no equivalent political or social drive to reduce the amount of money you need.

        • Well lower tube fairs, for a start. This directly leads to a lower cost of living. Then all the other people have more disposable income to spend generating jobs in other sectors. This is why we still have widespread employment, despite the industrial revolution.
          • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @10:25AM (#49717987) Journal

            Dude, seriously? Nearly every subway, bus and light-rail system in the US already operates under heavy government subsidization, and fares are well below cost.

            Put this way: If fares reflected the actual cost of operation (forget profit), they would IMHO just barely compete with Uber. Chuck in a profit margin for future expansion and improvements, and taxicabs could compete.

            • by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @01:31PM (#49719619)

              Dude, seriously? Nearly every subway, bus and light-rail system in the US already operates under heavy government subsidization, and fares are well below cost.

              Put this way: If fares reflected the actual cost of operation (forget profit), they would IMHO just barely compete with Uber. Chuck in a profit margin for future expansion and improvements, and taxicabs could compete.

              It's only a fair comparison if Uber were paying the full unsubsidized cost of roads. Fuel taxes and registration fees pay only a portion of road costs, and there are hidden subsidies in the oil that fuels most cars,

        • ...there's no equivalent political or social drive to reduce the amount of money you need.

          Well, that's what the unions should fight for, instead of fighting against the technology that makes everybody's lives better. But... money is money, and everybody's just fighting for their own.

        • by AchilleTalon ( 540925 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @10:21AM (#49717947) Homepage
          Yeah, instead train operators are installing devices to keep the train engineer awaked and have him push a button at regular interval as a proof since driving a train is a very boring job the day the coal tender was removed. It is kind of automating the engineer to make sure he actually drive the train.
          • by dryeo ( 100693 )

            They also (at least in Canada) work horrible shifts including being almost permanently on call. Overtired engineers and conductors are a problem that the train companies aren't interested in fixing as they want to maximize profits.

      • by eulernet ( 1132389 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @08:43AM (#49717025)

        In France too, we have the "ligne 14" in Paris [] which was completely automatic from the beginning and the "ligne 1", which has been automated since 2013.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Regulations most likely require that someone is on the train to oversee operation and help in emergencies anyway. So the cost/benefit analysis may still favour the current state with barely any accidents over a complete overhaul which mostly adds maintenance costs. Self driving cars in contrast mainly benefit the car owner who is not paid to spend hours driving.

      • by jbengt ( 874751 )

        Regulations most likely require that someone is on the train to oversee operation and help in emergencies anyway.

        This is true.

        • Oversee operations != Drive the train.

          There's a lot to be said for automating trains.

          Almost all crashes are caused by driver error and most of the rest are down to substandard maintenance with a vanishingly small number caused by odd things like signal failure due to lightning strikes.

          A train which can keep an eye on where it's going AND record/report track conditions in realtime would significantly improve the current setup where inspection trains only run over a track at weekly/monthly intervals.

          On the UK

    • Cars don't have unions. []
    • by fisted ( 2295862 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @08:50AM (#49717073)

      It's on *rails*.

      So what? Ruby is, and still it crashes all the time, too.

    • by Carewolf ( 581105 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @08:53AM (#49717095) Homepage

      I'm baffled that we just might get self driving cars before self driving trains.

      Do I really have to state the obvious? It's on *rails*.

      We have self-driving trains, but somebody needs deal with the inevitable delays and malfunctioning signals at winter and look out the window to check people do not get stuck in the door, etc. The self-driving once are usually in mostly underground metros where each station is manned, or a personel can get to within 5 minutes if the need arrises.

      • The self-driving once

        What about the self-driving twice?

      • by mysidia ( 191772 )

        But somebody needs deal with the inevitable delays and malfunctioning signals at winter and look out the window to check people do not get stuck in the door, etc.

        Translation: Get rid of drivers and replace them with safety patrol officers and maintenance workers who are trained to ensure safety and handle emergencies.

    • I figure that 10% of the engineering students get into the major because they thought they will be driving trains.

  • and dog eats tail (Score:4, Interesting)

    by nimbius ( 983462 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @07:35AM (#49716723) Homepage
    TL;DR: Federal oversight agency orders federal railroad system to implement safety system identified by federal investigators to have been a mitigating factor in this collision, after federal lawmakers gut funding for federal rail line.

    We care about this not because of the horrific loss of life or because of the ramifications of revealing the US to be a sinking ship of credit downgrades and crumbling infrastructure. We care about this accident because federal state and local lawmakers both for and against support of a public rail system dodged a bullet because they use that train regularly. the Amtrak stretch that collapsed under the burden of bureaucratic fasting could have been carrying a senator from his cloistered mcmansion to his cloistered chamber in Washington DC. That fact alone will see that this lapse in judgement is never again to be repeated. Until it is, and in which case the next incident of mass fatality due to blind ignorance and willful endangerment will be judged according to its plutocratic impact.
    • Re:and dog eats tail (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @07:46AM (#49716775) Journal

      This headline is misleading. We don't yet know what caused the crash, so it's a leap to say PTC could have prevented it. We do know that the train was traveling at a high rate of speed but not the reasons why it was doing that. If it was a systems failure then it's entirely possible that PTC would have been irrelevant. This is just like the rush to judgment against the engineer, who everyone was ready to lynch after the accident; all we know for sure about him at this juncture is his cell phone was turned off and his drug/alcohol test came back clean.

      Do some reading about PTC when you have a few minutes; like most Federal mandates it was:

      1) Unfunded.
      2) Ignored existing technology that could do the job nearly as well for a fraction of the cost.
      3) Ineffective, in that there have only been two train accounts in the last 20 years (three if this one is confirmed) that it would have prevented.

      • Re:and dog eats tail (Score:5, Informative)

        by McGruber ( 1417641 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @08:06AM (#49716865)

        This headline is misleading. We don't yet know what caused the crash, so it's a leap to say PTC could have prevented it.

        No, your comment is what is misleading. The FRA's emergency order is about Automatic Train Control (ATC), not Positive Train Control ("PTC"). The difference is explained in the final paragraph of the Trains magazine [] article linked to in the summary:

        Automatic train control is a system that will slow or stop a train that is moving too fast for a given stretch of track between installed control points based on signals for the area.....Positive train control is the generic name for train control systems that would slow or stop a train that is moving too fast anywhere along a PTC-covered section of track based on computer-updated speed restrictions and conditions and in areas where train crews are performing maintenance./quote?

        • by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @10:17AM (#49717915) Homepage Journal

          No, your comment is what is misleading.

          No, your correction is misleading. We _don't_ know what would have prevented the accident, the GP was entirely correct in saying that. You are right in saying that he confused ATC with PTC and shouldn't, but the idea that any automatically controlled speed limiting system would have prevented the accident relies upon several factors being ruled out, which have not yet been.

          I entirely agree the GP shouldn't have said PTC, but implying that the headline wasn't misleading as a result is completely inappropriate.

      • 1) Unfunded.

        Who cares? None of the Federal mandates on the People are funded. Amtrak can figure out a way to become more efficient and follow the law or the administrators can quit and get out of the way.

        They have until the end of this year to get PTC up and running on all trains, or they should be force-marched to Federal prison, like the rest of the hoi-palloi. Live by the sword, die by the run-away train.

      • Another aspect of PTC to consider: One big reason that no one has mentioned yet regarding railroads missing the deadline. The GOVERNMENT! An obviously critical part of a PTC installation is tens of thousands of trackside antennas, so the locomotive can communicate with the whole PTC network. Well, guess what? The antennas that the government (FRA, Congress, etc.) is mandating be installed are being held up because the government (EPA and FCC) are requiring that all these antennas undergo an environmental re

        • I don't think the EPA is involved. But yes, the FCC has been a major hold-up on the antennas issue. The other major obstacle along the same lines interestingly enough are several Indian reservations. While in the rest of the country the FCC can override pretty much any local authority when it comes to allowing antennas to be built, reservations are an exception and several freight railroads have had problems getting the permission of tribal authorities in those areas.

    • We care about this not because of the horrific loss of life or because of the ramifications of revealing the US to be a sinking ship of credit downgrades and crumbling infrastructure.

      Every time I hear a U.S. official talking about anything these days, I'm reminded of that scene in "Animal House" at the end where Kevin Bacon is desperately trying to calm the panicking crowd by saying "All is well" over and over again.

      Hey, isn't Iraq on fire?

      All is well.

      Hey, aren't we $18 trillion in debt?

      All is well.

      Hey, isn't there a growing disparity between the rich and poor?

      All is well.

    • Knee-jerk reaction. "It flipped over! You should have X! Do it! Do it now!" Next week: "The automated system didn't work, and caused the train to accelerate out of control and flip over! What irresponsible ass turned this on without proper testing?!"
  • Equality before Equations!! []:

    WASHINGTON, DC - President Obama announced in a Rose Garden press conference today that in light of the recent Amtrak accident he is calling on the Congress for bipartisan action on Physical Law Reform, and if they don’t act, he will.

    Mr. Obama stated that if the Congress refuses to act on this reform of the laws of physics, he will sign an executive order repealing them outright and implement reform on his own. “Reforming these so-called ‘Laws of Nature’ is the right thing to do, and it will help working families and keep them safe.”

    Said Mr. Obama: “The deadly Amtrak accident is just the latest example of how the GOP’s refusal to act has put many in danger with deadly consequences”.

    “This reform will have immediate benefits from instantly efficient electric cars that no longer need to obey the ‘laws of thermodynamics and energy density’ to the being able to drive around a curve at high speed without needing so-called ‘Centripetal force’ to keep you on the tracks.”

    Obama continued “So if the Congress refuses to act, I will issue an executive order repealing these so-called ‘laws of physics’, We cannot continue living in the past having to follow ‘Laws’ handed down from Sir Issac Newton over 300 hundred years ago, this is not who we are”.

    “It’s time to put equality before equations, people instead of physics and fairness over formulas,” the president said.

    Obama dismissed the simplistic Newton’s laws of motion as a holdovers from a bygone era of racism where the ‘majority’ felt they could impose their vision of the physical world on everyone else with their so-called ‘classical mechanics’.

    In a related development, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement that President Obama's Physical Law Reform does not violate the Constitutional separation of powers because the Founding Fathers didn’t foresee that people of the future would be so stupid as to fall for this kind of malarkey.

  • by swb ( 14022 )

    The news reports all say the train was traveling over 100 MPH when it hit the curve.

    I'm not a train guy, but what's the maximum speed for that entire line? For some reason I'm thinking that line isn't ever supposed to hit that kind of speed and it makes me wonder why those engines don't have a speed governor that keeps the train from ever exceeding the maximum speed allowable across the entire route.

    I'd also think that such a governor should be tied to GPS to determine speed and if it can do that, it could

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There are many sections where speeds reach 120mph.

      Trains are fast, bro.

    • A capability very similar to what you are talking about is already in place on many lines. Just not that one. This point was discussed in several articles about this crash. This tragedy is going to force them to increase the coverage of the system.
    • by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @10:37AM (#49718127) Homepage Journal

      There are a bunch of things going on here so bear with me.

      1. The speed immediately before the curve is 80mph. The curve itself is rated for 80mph but the official speed limit is 50. Why the difference? Because rail companies take passenger comfort seriously and 80mph through that curve would require passengers wear seatbelts and might possibly cause slight travel sickness. As an aside trains generally start at Philly by accelerating with an open (full) throttle. When they reach 80mph, it's usually at the point in the journey where the train now needs to slow to 50mph to pass the curve. Supposedly the brakes weren't activated and throttle closed, possibly because the driver was distracted by having a rock thrown at him, but... WE DON'T KNOW THIS and the headline of this story is premature.

      2.Both ATC and PTC do as you describe. They include mechanisms to monitor the speed of trains and slow them if they're speeding. PTC even includes a GPS element. ATC is older, creakier, but...

      3. ATC was not installed on the section immediately North of Philly because, reportedly, Amtrak engineers at the time didn't believe any trains would actually reach 80mph before hitting that curve. This was probably true at the time.

      4. In the last year, Amtrak has introduced new locomotives, including the one used for Amtrak 188. These locomotives are considerably more powerful than the "Meatballs" they replaced.

      So, that's currently the thinking. The most likely scenario right now appears to be that the engineer was distracted by rocks being thrown at the train at the critical moment where he was supposed to close the throttle and engage the brakes. Because it was a newer, more powerful, locomotive than the safety systems there were originally designed for, the train was able to accelerate to 105mph during that distracted period. Because there were no ATC or PTC systems active in that area, the train wasn't stopped automatically.

      That's the _most likely_ scenario. There are many other possibilities, including a software problem on the locomotive (which, depending on the nature of the bug) could have rendered PTC or ATC ineffectual given they rely upon the loco to, you know, respond to its commands. The latter is unlikely, but it hasn't been ruled out yet.

      We should do what commonsense requires, the accident may or may not have been caused by a lack of ATC, but we do know now that there exists the possibility of speed related accidents in that area and need it to be addressed. In the mean time, we should wait for the NTSB to do its job.

  • Why couldn't the trains simply be equipped with GPS connected to the on-board computers that control the throttle and brakes? Seems like a pretty simple programming exercise to say "hey, our current coordinates indicate the need for reduced speed", then adjust throttle and/or brakes as required. I understand the need for integration into the greater system to prevent accidents from trains following too closely, etc, but even using GPS as a failsafe mechanism could have prevented this derailment.

    I was asking

    • by thsths ( 31372 )

      Unfortunately the railway industry has quite a strange mindset, and is heavily opposed to any kind of innovation. Often this is hiding behind a veil of safety concerns: a new technology will not be adopted unless it can be shown to be perfect. And of course new technology is never perfect, even if it is a lot better than existing solutions.

      PTC is a great example of a system at huge expense with rather small benefits. Should it have been adopted? Probably yes - the rest of the world did similar things decade

    • Because tunnels...

      If you get into a tunnel GPS signal goes out and your speed control becomes useless, and then you need some other kind of speed control inside tunnels, and once you have implemented that one, the gps one becomes redundant...

      And wasting money on redundancy is something CEOs hate.
    • by jbengt ( 874751 )
      The signalling and controls for trains are much more reliable than GPS and the simple programming exercise you envision. The issue is that automatic failsafes being installed for that section of track were not yet tested and given control of the trains, not that they could not be done.
  • Lobbying Against PTC (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 18, 2015 @07:52AM (#49716817)

    Wall Street Analyst Encouraged Rail Company to Lobby Against Train Safety Rules []
    By Lee Fang (@lhfang)
    05/15/2015 11:26 AM

    Positive Train Control, a technology system used to monitor trains and automatically keep them from reaching unsafe speeds, would likely have prevented the tragic Amtrak derailment earlier this week and many other train crashes in recent years, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and train safety experts.

    But ever since Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring train companies to implement PTC by the end of 2015, the railroad industry has mounted a ferocious lobbying campaign to delay the rule.

    Amtrak, like many other railroads, has been slow to comply. The federal government has been accommodating. And most recently, senators have been fighting primarily over how long an extension should be granted.

    Train companies did not want to invest the needed funds to upgrade their systems. But they may have been feeling direct pressure from Wall Street, as well.

    In one revealing exchange during an investor call in 2009, Jason Seidl, then a financial analyst with the Dahlman Rose & Co. investment bank, asked Wick Moorman, the chief executive of Norfolk Southern Corp., what “you guys can do in terms of lobbying” on the PTC. And given the costs of complying with the PTC rule, the analyst wanted to know how future investments might be impacted.

    Moorman said he and other rail executives were busy working to “educate members of Congress as to what the implications of this legislation are.” Seidl encouraged Moorman to “further educate” them.

    Lobbying and other government records show the rail industry extensively sought to influence the Federal Railroad Administration and Congress on the PTC rules. Individual rail companies, including Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, CSX, Canada National Railway Company, among others, hired a small army of lobbyists.

    But the largest and most prominent lobbying group to work to delay and weaken the PTC rule was the American Association of Railroads, which employed a veritable who’s who of D.C. consultants and lobbyists, including:

    — Linda Daschle, the wife of former Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle, was paid to lobby on the PTC on behalf of the Association of American Railroads.

    — The bipartisan lobbying duo of Max Sandlin and Vin Weber, both former congressmen, are registered with the American Association of Railroads to lobby on the PTC. Weber, an advisor to Jeb Bush, is also on the board of the American Action Network, a GOP dark money group that spends millions on election campaigns.

    — Another bipartisan lobbying team, including former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is registered to lobby on behalf of the American Association of Railroads on PTC.

    — The tax returns for the American Association of Railroads lists SKDKnickerbocker as a consultant for public relations and advertising throughout 2011 and 2012. SKDK is a public affairs firm led by senior Democratic staffers including former White House communications director Anita Dunn and CNN contributor Hilary Rosen. SKDK did not return a call requesting information about what services the firm provided for AAR, or if they continue to count AAR as a client.

    — Former National Transportation Safety Board Kathryn Higgins was registered on behalf of AAR to lobby on the PTC.

    — Former Rep. William Lipinski, D-Ill., was registered on behalf of the AAR to lobby on PTC. Lipinski’s son Dan is now a member of Congress who serves on the House Transportation Committee.

    Engineers have complained about the influence of the train

    • An October 21, 2013 article from Bloomberg Business: Tribes Vetting 22,000 Antennae Halt $13 Billion Rail Plan []

      In May, the railroads and their regulators learned 565 American Indian tribes had the right to review, one by one, whether 22,000 antennae required for the system to work might be built on sacred ground. That’s as many wireless tower applications as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approves in two years.

      “I’m just speechless,” said Grady Cothen, who retired in 2010 from the Federal Railroad Administration as the deputy associate administrator for safety standards. “I didn’t expect this issue to arise.”

      The resulting backup may give railroads including Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe another reason to miss the December 2015 deadline to finish a $13.2 billion project covering one-third of the U.S. rail network.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 18, 2015 @09:25AM (#49717393)

      Replying as anonymous for business reasons...

      I worked on the PTC a few years ago with Lockheed Martin and Norfolk Southern. The LM folks were very committed to the program, but NS kept reducing funding. I wont make you read between the lines here, the program was a absolute disaster.

      Technologically the solution evolved GPS/Radio units in every train and maintenance vehicle that reported back to a bunker, data center, the trains approximate location, direction, and speed. However because of accuracy issues it was really hard to tell EXACTLY which track a train was on, especially in high density rail yards. So train GPS was supplemented by track circuits which in theory tell you if a train is on a section of track. Which is good in theory, but it can't tell you which train, nor distinguish between maintenance vehicles and trains, nor can it tell you how fast or long a train is.

      Knowing how long a train is became important for guaranteeing safe spacing between vehicles, as well as knowing safe times to switch track selectors.

      And don't get me started on the software, if anything were ever written by a room full of monkeys it was the PTC software. I recall one function in particular that controlled logic for determining which track a train was likely to be on; when printing out was over 30 foot long. To give you a since of how convoluted that code was, that single function had a McCabe complexity of over 1.5 million.

      Now I don't care how brilliant you THINK you are as a programmer, but thinking that you could understand that function only proved to me you were an idiot. 1.5 million possible paths through that one function (yes I know that we didn't account for similar condition statements that artificially inflate that number). That one function is absolutely guaranteed to kill your program, and we stressed that until we were released from the program. Just by odds alone, you are likely to add 5-10 defects while trying to fix a bug in it. And for two solid years that is exactly what happened, the defect count literally oscillated like a sin-wave function.

      I'm not telling you this as a slight at the programmers, nor the management. I'm telling you this because a project like PTC is HARD, its like the traveling salesman problem but with 50 salesman who can't be at the same place at the same time, but can pass each-other as needed, are likely going in opposite directions, and you have to recompute the whole mess every 30 seconds and resolve conflicts when a previous solution made the train "jump". Let me tell you there is nothing worse than watching a train make it's way through a switch yard then suddenly jump 10 lanes halfway through on the display.

  • In the summary, I linked to a subscriber-only Wall Street Journal article. I have since found a link to the article, via google, that should allow non-subscribers to read it: Wall Street Journal: Amtrak Crash Might Have Been Avoided by Tweak to Signal System []

    If it doesn't work, clear your system of WSJ cookies and try again.

  • Fred Frailey, who is probably the nation’s best-known writer about railroads [] has written an opinion piece about the media's coverage of the accident: Trains Magazine: Media and the railroads [] He thinks the media has been doing a great job:

    The best reporters learn as they go and become experts on new subjects, if given enough time. The wreck of train 188 turns out to have legs, that is, staying power. The story won’t go away. At this point I think the news organizations are doing a great job, and I salute them.

  • by NotDrWho ( 3543773 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @08:38AM (#49716997)

    Going slower means we can't push as many trains through, which means we don't make as much money!

  • by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Monday May 18, 2015 @09:17AM (#49717323) Journal

    The PTC system has been rolled out in an intelligent manner, and curves that require breaking got it first. What happened in this particular derailment was an anomaly. Any time a massive new system like this is rolled out, decisions have to be made to prioritize which areas are the highest risk, and thus those areas get the system first. In this particular curve, PTC was installed coming into the curve from the other direction, but not in the direction the train was travelling. Why? Because in the direction the train was travelling, the speed limit from the last stop was never greater than the speed in which the curve could be navigated. The train never needed to slow down into the curve when travelling in that direction. However when coming from the other direction, the train needed to slow from a normal 90+ MPH. Thus PTC was rolled out to make sure trains decelerated because that was the greatest risk.

    The train accelerated suddenly within one minute of the crash to that high of a speed, so this wasn't an issue of just negligence and forgetting to brake. The train was accelerated far above the speed limit for no good reason, then the engineer tried to brake at the last second but it was too late.

    My hunch is he heard that other engineer in another train talking about being hit by projectiles, and so he sped up to try and make it harder for the engine to get hit, and he misjudged when he needed to slow down to take that curve.

  • What do you expect them to say? But really, the PTC system wasn't turned off for shits and grins. It was still being installed and waiting final calibration and certification. Besides the NTSB is still trying to explain the sudden acceleration (twice) as the train approached the curve. One thought is a software glitch with the onboard system. If that is shown to be the case, then PTC wouldn't make much of a difference.

Top Ten Things Overheard At The ANSI C Draft Committee Meetings: (9) Dammit, little-endian systems *are* more consistent!