Rail industry, regulators debate feasibility of automating trains

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Rail industry officials and federal accident regulators disagreed about the viability of a looming mandate that most U.S. railways be equipped with automated control systems by the end of next year during a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Congress is requiring that most major railroad companies install automated systems known as Positive Train Control (PTC) by December 2015.

The automated train systems have gained renewed attention after a spate of high-profile accidents on passenger and freight railways, including most recently a December derailment of a freight train in North Dakota that resulted in 400,000 gallons of crude oil being spilled.

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The law requiring the implementation of automated train control systems by 2015 has been on the books since 2008.

However, Association of American Railroads President Ed Hemberger told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Thursday that the automated systems have proven to be more difficult to install than regulators imagined.

"PTC is an unprecedented challenge, both in terms of the technologies to be used and the integration of those technologies," Hemberger told the panel in testimony submitted before Thursday's hearing.

"At its heart, PTC is a massive communications system," Hemberger continued. "Locomotives must be able to communicate with the 'back office' concerning the train’s speed, location, and many other parameters and receive information regarding, among many other things, the locations of other trains in the area, possible schedule changes, safety alerts, and so on.”

Hemberger said that railroads were running into problems with installing the automated equipment on tracks that run through Native American reserves.

"The railroad industry began working several years ago with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to license the wireless spectrum necessary for PTC, and to its credit, the FCC has worked diligently to address spectrum-related issues,” he said. “Nonetheless, the industry learned just last year that, under the FCC’s interpretation of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), railroads must ascertain, on an antenna-by-antenna basis, if the antennas will negatively impact areas of historic, cultural, or religious significance."

Hemberger said railroad was in agreement with federal regulators about the importance of installing automated train control systems to boost safety.

But the rail association chief said the only solution to the challenges facing the train industry was to push back the 2015 deadline for them to automate.

"The bottom line is that without further changes to the FCC approval process, the timeline for ultimate deployment of PTC will be delayed significantly," Hemberger said. "The 2013 construction season was lost for PTC wayside antennas. A new review process at the FCC will not be in place until at least April of this year. If that process takes several months to clear locations, the 2014 construction season will also be in jeopardy." 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Vice Chairman Chris Hart said the safety benefits of automating trains should outweigh the rail industry's technical concerns. 

"Implementation of PTC systems was included on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List when the list was first published in 1990 and has remained on the list almost continuously since that time," Hart said. "We may never eliminate human error from the railroad system, but PTC provides a level of redundancy to protect trains and those on board when human factors, such as distraction or fatigue, might otherwise set an accident sequence into motion."

Hart said several of the accidents that have renewed focus on the automated train control systems could have been avoided if they were already in place.

"The December 1 Metro-North accident in the Bronx, which killed four people and injured 59 others, would have been prevented by PTC," Hart said. "We also are examining the role PTC could have played in the May 28 roadway worker fatality. Since 2004 alone, in the 25 PTC-preventable freight and passenger rail accidents that NTSB investigated, 65 people died, more than 1,100 were injured, and damages totaled millions of dollars. With each PTC-preventable accident, the case for PTC only grows stronger, yet progress toward industry-wide implementation has been slow."

Hart added that it would be unfair to rail companies that have begun work on installing their automated systems to grant a delay to the remainder of the industry now.

"If Congress were to delay the statutory deadline, railroads that had delayed planning PTC implementation would be rewarded and railroads that had moved ahead with planning for PTC implementation by the deadline would essentially be punished," Hart said.

At least one member of the Senate panel, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), appeared to be more sympathetic to Hemberger's argument, however.

"While I agree that PTC is an important safety technology that railroads should work to install as quickly as possible, I worry that the current statutory deadline of December 2015 is unrealistic for most passenger and freight railroads," Thune said.

Thune said he would file a bill with 11 other senators to push back the December 2015 deadline for automated train control systems.

The South Dakota lawmaker made clear that he was not ready to throw the towel in completely on automating trains, however.

"At the end of the day, we have a shared interest in seeing PTC work as intended, and avoiding the unintended consequences of an unworkable timetable that could weaken the overall safety of our rail network," Thune said. "We all want PTC done right, and I appreciate the perspectives of our witnesses on how we can work together to make that happen."