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Deadly Derailment Sheds Light On Tool That Could Prevent Rail Accidents

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First responders work the scene of a derailment of a Metro-North passenger train in the Bronx borough of New York Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. The train derailed on a curved section of track in the Bronx, coming to rest just inches from the water and causing multiple fatalities and dozens of injuries, authorities said. Metropolitan Transportation Authority police say the train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station.
(AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)
First responders work the scene of a derailment of a Metro-North passenger train in the Bronx borough of New York Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. The train derailed on a curved section of track in the Bronx, coming to rest just inches from the water and causing multiple fatalities and dozens of injuries, authorities said. Metropolitan Transportation Authority police say the train derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station.

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 m.p.h. as it entered a 30 m.p.h. curve. It was unclear on Monday why the train was going so fast.

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 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.

Possible extension
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.

“The idea it is an unrealistic deadline would seem somewhat belied by the fact that serious investment has been going into Positive Train Control since the legislation requiring it was passed,” Connolly said. “We will take a serious look at that if we feel that the goals and objectives of PTC cannot be met on the deadline set by Congress in the 2008 legislation.”

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.

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