Most of the nation’s railroads will not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing collision-avoidance technology that could have prevented Tuesday’s deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.
Congress in 2008 required that railroads install positive train control by the end of this year, and although the rail industry has made progress on the $9 billion system, equipping 60,000 miles of track and 22,500 locomotives with the technology has proved to be complicated.
The technology has to work across not only the seven largest freight railroads but also 20 commuter railroads, Amtrak and dozens of smaller carriers. It requires 36,000 wireless devices that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches.
It also must work in densely populated regions where multiple rail lines intersect and are heavy with passenger and freight traffic, such as Chicago, Southern California, New York and New Jersey.
“Each of these systems has to be able to talk to each other,” said Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.
Even lawmakers who months ago wanted to hold the industry to the 2015 deadline have softened their position in recognition that the system simply won’t be ready.
Hamberger told reporters Thursday that the industry needs another three years just to get the equipment installed, and two more to make sure it works. Of the 60,000 miles of track where the system is required, he said only 8,200 miles would be ready by year’s end.
A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to complete the task. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the legislation that contained the 2015 deadline, said a five-year blanket extension was not the answer.
“In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy,” she said in a statement Thursday. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis.
The technology was not in place at the site of Tuesday’s derailment, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger railroad in the country. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that positive train control would have prevented Train 188 from approaching a 50 mph curve at more than 106 mph.
Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was Amtrak’s first fatal accident on the Northeast Corridor since a January 1987 crash that killed 16 people. In that instance, positive train control could have stopped a freight locomotive from running past a stop signal into the path of the Amtrak train.
The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. In January, the board included the technology on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. It did not endorse giving railroads an extension beyond December.
Amtrak actually may finish its installation of the system on the entire 457-mile passenger rail corridor between Washington and Boston ahead of most railroads.
“We will complete this by the end of the year,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia.
The rail industry supports the Senate bill that would give the companies a five-year deadline extension, and even some of the industry’s toughest critics in Congress are prepared to give it more time.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, freight hauler BNSF and Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California, are positioned to meet the original deadline.
An August 2008 collision near Chatsworth, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring positive train control. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train ran past a stop signal and into the path of a Union Pacific freight. According to the NTSB accident report, the Metrolink engineer, who was among those killed, was texting just before the crash.
Another fatal crash, on New York’s Metro North commuter railroad in December 2013, renewed calls for positive train control. Four people were killed when a New York-bound train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The train was traveling 80 mph when it hit a 30 mph curve.
Positive train control is designed to prevent a train from running a red signal or approaching a slow curve too fast. Accident investigators don’t yet know why Train 188 was going more than twice the appropriate speed when it derailed in Northeast Philadelphia, but they do know the accident was preventable.
“The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install positive train control technology as soon as possible,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday.
One thing Congress did not do when it required railroads to install the system was give them any money to do it. When asked Thursday how much the government had contributed to the freight railroads to assist with positive train control, Hamberger, of the Association of American Railroads, replied, “Zero.”
President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes $825 million to help commuter railroads install the technology. The president’s 2009 economic stimulus provided $64 million to Amtrak for its installation. But that wasn’t enough, the railroad said in a report justifying its 2014 budget request.
Overall, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install positive train control.
“Additional funding to fully comply with PTC requirements is necessary,” Amtrak said.
Richard Harnish, the president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group that advocates for passenger rail improvements, said in a statement Thursday that positive train control was delayed because Congress gave railroads an unfunded mandate.
“Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system,” he said.