Feinstein: Automate trains to prevent crashes

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is calling for lawmakers to stick to a 2015 deadline requiring trains to be automated following a fatal accident last weekend on New York's Metro-North commuter railway.

In a letter to the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees transportation issues, Feinstein said lawmakers should maintain a deadline that was set in 2008 mandating the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) systems on all U.S. railways.

Prior to the Metro-North accident, some rail companies had been calling for a delay in the mandate because of the cost of implementing the new systems.

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Feinstein said the Metro-North crash showed why Congress approved the automated train mandate in the first place.

"According to experts at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a properly functioning Positive Train Control crash avoidance system would very likely have prevented the deadly Metro-North derailment on Sunday, regardless of whether the over-speed event was caused by mechanical failure or human error," Feinstein wrote to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

"PTC systems would also have prevented the 2008 Southern California Metrolink crash that killed 25 Californians," Feinstein continued. "In just the last ten years, the NTSB has completed 26 investigations of train accidents in the United States that could have been prevented by PTC. These accidents claimed 65 lives and injured more than 1,000 people."

Congress mandated the implementation of positive train control technology in the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act that was passed after the California Metrolink crash.

The automated technology came under fire when it was blamed for failing during a 2009 crash on the Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway system. That crash resulted in nine deaths and led to the capital subway returning to manual control of trains, a decision which has still not been reversed.

Feinstein expressed confidence in the PTC system on Thursday, however.

"Having experienced firsthand the heart-wrenching devastation of a deadly rail accident, Metrolink’s leaders have prioritized PTC deployment," she said. "The railroad obtained the spectrum, software systems, hardware and cab upgrades necessary to deploy the system as rapidly as possible. Positive Train Control will save lives when it is deployed, and every day of delay leaves in place a 19th century signaling system dependent entirely on the attention of each train’s lone engineer."

Feinstein noted that Metro-North and New York's Long Island Railroad were among the rail companies that have pushed for a delay in the implementation of the automated train requirement.

"Unfortunately, other railroads in the United States have fallen behind schedule for deploying this vital safety technology, and they have encouraged Congress to amend Federal law in order to delay PTC crash avoidance system deployment," she wrote. "For instance, in a May 2012 letter published in the New York Times, the Presidents of the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Railroad called for the delay of Positive Train Control crash avoidance system deadlines. Legislation referred to your committee proposes delaying PTC crash avoidance system deadlines five years."

Feinstein concluded that Sunday's Metro-North crash was "preventable."

"I am hopeful that the leaders of New York railroads will take from Sunday’s deadly accident the same lesson that Metrolink’s leadership learned in 2008," she said. "Positive Train Control will save lives when it is deployed, and every day of delay leaves in place a 19th century signaling system dependent entirely on the attention of each train’s lone engineer."

The Metro-North accident resulted in the deaths of four passengers and injured about 70 others.

Federal investigators have said that the train in question was traveling 82 miles per hour in an area of track that has a 30 mile-per-hour speed limit in the seconds before the accident. The driver of the train has reportedly told investigators that he momentarily lost focus and was “not 100 percent awake” before the crash.