Transportation advocates say an automated train control system, which investigators said could have prevented this week's deadly Amtrak crash, needs more money, not just more time, to be installed.
Railroads currently have until December to install the system, which is called positive train control (PTC), under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.
But just six weeks before Tuesday’s wreck, which killed eight people, the GOP-led Senate Commerce Committee approved a measure pushing the deadline to the end of 2020 at the behest of rail companies, who argued the 2015 mandate was too burdensome.
American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President Michael Melaniphy said this week the problems with the automated train control system go deeper than the deadline.
"The commuter rail industry is 100 percent committed to developing and installing the technology, as well as acquiring radio spectrum for positive train control," he said.
"Despite our best efforts, implementing PTC nationwide by the end of this year is not possible," Melaniphy continued. "This was never a realistic deadline set by Congress."
The Amtrak crash touched off a debate in Congress about whether the automated train control deadline should be extended, after investigators said the train reached speeds of more than 100 mph before it derailed near Philadelphia.
Melaniphy said railways have already spent millions of dollars on the automated train control system, but he said they need more help from Congress to complete the transition.
"The industry has already spent $950 million, and conservative estimates are that $3.48 billion is needed to implement it nationally on commuter rail," he said. "So far, Congress has only provided $50 million for this critical federal safety technology. We call on Congress to provide funding for this safety technology that will save lives."
Amtrak officials had also pressed lawmakers for more money to meet the deadline before Tuesday's crash.
“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,” Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman wrote in a 2013 op-ed in USA Today.
“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.”
The automated train control mandate was passed after a 2008 crash on California's Metrolink commuter railway that involved a collision between a passenger and freight train.
Passenger rail groups wasted little time sounding the alarm about the lack of funding for the automated train control system again after Tuesday's crash.
"This crash highlights how urgent it is to install Positive Train Control (PTC)," Midwest High Speed Rail Association (MHSRA) Executive Director Richard Harnish said in a statement, adding that the system "would have automatically slowed the train when it went above the speed limit, preventing the crash.”
Harnish also said Congress did not provide enough money for the transition when it adopted the automated train control requirement in 2008.
“Congress enacted an unfunded mandate in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 for all passenger railroads to install PTC by 2015," Harnish continued. "PTC installation has been delayed because of the lack of funding. Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system.”
APTA's Melaniphy said railways have made more progress with the installation of the automated train control system than most people realize, though they had pushed hard for the extension of the deadline before Tuesday's Amtrak crash.
"PTC is a complex technology that would prevent derailments from trains moving too fast and it would prevent collisions between trains," he said.
"At the time that Congress mandated PTC in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, this technology was not a mature technology," he said. "Working in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration, the freight rail industry, and Amtrak, the commuter rail industry has spent a significant amount of time and resources in developing this technology and there is still work that remains to be done so that it is safe and effective."
But still, Melaniphy said the automated train deadline should be extended and Congress should provide more money to help with the installation.
"It would be ill-advised to rush forward to meet a deadline, rather than taking the necessary time to implement this complex technology properly and safely," he said.