Amtrak CEO: Automated train systems need more money

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Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman said Monday that Congress needs to appropriate more money for automatic train control systems in the wake of a crash on New York’s Metro-North commuter railway earlier this month.

Boardman said in an op-ed in USA Today that the technology, which is known as Positive Train Control, could have helped to prevent the Metro-North crash.

But he said that train companies do not have enough money to meet a scheduled 2015 deadline for the widespread implementation of the system without additional action from Congress.

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“As a former New York State Transportation Commissioner, a past Federal Railroad Administrator and current Amtrak President and CEO, I can state unequivocally that we need Positive Train Control technology on our nation's railroads,” Boardman wrote. "PTC is the most important rail safety advancement of our time.”

Safety advocates began calling for more automated control of trains after federal regulators revealed the Metro-North train was traveling 82 miles per hour in an area of train that had a 30 mile-per-hour speed limit in the seconds before the deadly crash.

Boardman wrote that Amtrak and other railways were working hard to meet the deadline, but he said they need more financial help to completely install the system.

“We're on target to meet the 2015 deadline to install PTC components along our trackside and in our locomotives, but before we can turn it on and realize the safety benefits in the new areas we must obtain the necessary radio spectrum to transmit data that is critical to make the system operational,” he wrote.

“Many Amtrak and commuter trains also operate on track owned by other railroads whose primary business is moving freight, including toxic inhalation hazard shipments,” Boardman continued. “The nation's railroads are working together to ensure there is interoperability of PTC systems so that safety is maintained as trains travel from one railroad to another. However, without additional resources and an increased level of commitment, the federal deadline may not be met.”

Boardman said Congress would likely have two chances to put more money behind the automatic train control system: the renewal of a passenger rail funding bill that expired in September of this year, and a surface transportation reauthorization that is scheduled to take place next year.

“If we as a society decide that we want to, we can begin to pay the debt we owe to the future by facing the challenges of implementing PTC,” Boardman wrote. “Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration, the rail industry and all other players involved need to re-double their commitment, provide funding, act with determination and eliminate roadblocks to achieve PTC implementation as soon as possible.

“The upcoming debate on a new federal Surface Transportation bill is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate our nation's commitment to PTC not only as a vital safety measure, but also because PTC can support additional communication, train management and operational efficiency improvements that the passenger and freight railroads are only now beginning to envision," Boardman continued.

Boardman said the automatic train control funding levels was symptomatic of a larger debate about funding for infrastructure funding improvements that has been ongoing in Congress.

“We need a new air traffic control system and a serious program to rebuild and repair our bridges and highways,” he wrote. “We need funding for our local and regional transit systems and more capital investment to improve and expand the national network of intercity passenger rail. We need the same thing for our waterways, our electric grid, our water and sewage systems, and our communication systems.”