Railroads Face Deadline to Install Technology to Prevent Crashes

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UPDATE: The National Transportation Safety Board says no anomalies have been found with the brake system on the train that derailed in the Bronx on Sunday. During a news conference Tuesday afternoon, NTSB member Earl Weener said the agency would continue to advocate for Positive Train Control, a system he says provides redundancy by slowing or stopping a train that's not being operated according to signals or speed limits.

"Since this is a derailment involving a high speed train, it's possible that PTC could have prevented it," Weener said.

In a statement, the MTA said they began to install Positive Train Control on the Long Island Rail Road and MetroNorth in 2009. 


"To date, the MTA has budgeted nearly $600 million for elements of PTC installation, including a $428 million procurement last month for a system integrator. Full implementation is estimated to cost $900 million, and the MTA will make sure the appropriate funding is made to implement PTC on the most aggressive schedule possible. However, implementing PTC by the 2015 deadline will be very difficult for the MTA as well as for other commuter railroads, as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both concluded. Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and LIRR, and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTC has not been made available. The MTA will continue its efforts to install PTC as quickly as possible, and will continue to make all prudent and necessary investments to keep its network safe."


ORIGINAL STORY: The deadly derailment of a Metro-North commuter train in New York Sunday may be adding a sense of urgency to the efforts of freight and passengers railroads to adopt technology that could prevent such incidents, especially after a federal investigator revealed the Metro-North train was hurtling at 82 mph as it entered a 30 mph curve.

Class I railroads regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration, which include Metro-North, are operating under a deadline imposed by Congress to install technology by the end of 2015 known as Positive Train Control (PTC). Rail experts say PTC can prevent most accidents and derailments caused by excessive speed, a train moving through a switch left in the wrong position, and head-on collisions.

Investigators have not determined whether the Metro-North derailment was caused by human error or mechanical failures, but safety advocates contend a PTC system might have slowed the train down.

Deadly collision spurred 2015 deadline

The congressional deadline was part of the Rail Safety and Improvement Act of 2008, passed after 25 people were killed in a collision involving a Metrolink commuter train in Southern California on Sept. 12, 2008. Railroads since have invested close to $3 billion in positive train control technology, but some rail experts say it is unlikely all Class I railroads will have enough funding and available technology to meet the deadline in 24 months.

The passenger railroads don’t have a lot of cash floating around,” said Charles Banks, the president of R.L. Banks & Associates, an Arlington-based rail consulting firm. “The problem is there is no specific technology that you can take off the shelf and put into place to solve the problems.”

A premature move to PTC before the technology is fully developed could lead to service reductions across the country, Banks said. “The technology that is in the process of being implemented, whether it is implemented by the last day of 2015 or a few years later than that, is going to have the terrible result of reducing the number of trains that can be operated on the tracks.”

Amtrak is ahead of the PTC curve

Amtrak, to cite one example, is not struggling to meet the deadline, a railroad spokesman said. Amtrak has installed PTC on 530 track-miles including sections of the Northeast Corridor. The signal system is designed to automatically enforce a speed reduction on a curve, said spokesman Steve Kulm.

Amtrak is installing PTC on an additional 1,200 track-miles to cover all remaining Amtrak-owned sections of the Northeast Corridor and the full length of its Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania.

Legislation under consideration in the U.S. Senate would extend the 2015 deadline to 2020. There is no companion bill in the House, but Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said legislators might be open to considering an extension if railroads cannot meet the deadline.

Experts say PTC will be vital to preventing accidents, but the current technology will not prevent all potential mishaps on the nation’s rails. For instance, PTC would not stop a train from ramming into the back of an idle train on the same track. A cracked or broken track might also escape the system’s detection. Moreover, the question of inter-operability remains unanswered as railroads install different forms of the technology.

Rolling out the PTC mandate and having it effective by the end of 2015 without proven technology being out there or without the time necessary to develop the best technology, I don’t think is prudent,” said Stephen Sullivan, Banks’ partner at R.L. Banks and Associates.

NTSB supports PTC

The National Transportation Safety Board is not taking a position of whether Congress should extend the deadline, but NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said PTC is necessary. For every day that it is delayed, for every day we don’t have PTC, we have the continued risk of train accidents,” said Sumwalt in an interview with WAMU 88.5.

Metrorail in Washington is not in the category of railroads regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration that are required to install PTC. Metro, regulated by the Federal Transit Administration, has a similar system known as Automatic Train Control that provides speed enforcement and train separation. Metro is working to return its rail system to Automatic Train Control after it was taken offline following the deadly 2009 Red Line crash.