Commuter railroads make progress installing life-saving tech

Commuter railroads make progress installing life-saving tech
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Commuter railroads have made some progress installing a potentially life-saving train technology, though they still have a long way to go, according to new analysis from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

The improvement comes as the commuter railroad industry has lagged behind the efforts of freight railroads in implementing positive train control (PTC), which automatically slows down a train that is going over the speed limit and will eventually be required by law.

As of the end of last year, 30 percent of passenger rail locomotives and cab cars are equipped with PTC, up from 29 percent in the first half of 2016. Meanwhile, 50 percent of the necessary PTC radio towers have been erected, up from 46 percent.

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Overall, 23 percent of commuter railroad route miles are either in PTC operation or in full demonstration mode, with 19 percent of commuter rail agencies fully equipped with the technology.

The APTA analysis was based on responses from the group’s members and quarterly reports from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

"The commuter rail industry continues to make significant progress in implementing positive train control,” said Richard A. White, the APTA’s acting president and CEO. "The progress on this complex safety technology demonstrates the industry's relentless focus on safety."

Congress had originally given commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the technology, which can prevent derailments, collisions, crashes and improper track switching. But as railroads struggled to meet compliance deadlines, lawmakers pushed back the implementation date to at least Dec. 31, 2018.

Recent deadly train crashes — including a speeding New Jersey Transit train that slammed into Hoboken Terminal — have stepped up pressure on railroads.

The APTA data show that commuter railroads across the country still have a long way to go in adopting positive train control, in part because of the steep cost of the technology.

BNSF Railway, a top freight railroad in the U.S., has even called on Congress to help passenger railroads get into compliance.
 
“As a freight railroad, it may sound out of line, but I actually urge Congress to fund passenger commuter rail funding for positive train control,” Matthew Rose, executive chairman of BNSF, told a Senate panel last week.

“I can’t imagine a more difficult train wreck for us to have to go to where we have the positive train control on the freight rail, and the passenger or commuter train didn’t because of lack of funding.”

PTC implementation is projected to cost the commuter rail industry more than $3.5 billion in capital expenses and $100 million annually in additional maintenance costs, the APTA said.

Since 2008, Congress has doled out over $650 million in federal grants for installing the technology, as well as a nearly $1 billion loan to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to the FRA. 

"The installation of PTC is challenging for a number of reasons, including from a technical perspective. PTC was not a mature technology when Congress mandated it in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008," said White. 

"Beyond the technological challenges that have to be addressed, there are significant issues in regard to the costs, scarce qualified resources, and adequate access to track and locomotives for installation and testing."