Feds: Most railroads will miss automated train deadline

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The Obama administration warned lawmakers on Wednesday that most of the nation’s railways will fail to meet a deadline for implementing an automated train control system that investigators have said would have prevented last month’s deadly Amtrak crash. 

Railroads currently have until December to install Positive Train Control (PTC) – which regulates the speed and track movements of trains – under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.  

{mosads}The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) told lawmakers in a Senate hearing on Wednesday that was called in the wake of the more recent Amtrak crash that most of the nation’s railroad companies will not make the deadline, however. 

“For more than three years, FRA has been sounding the alarm that most railroads have not made sufficient progress to meet the December 2015 deadline,” associate administrator for railroad safety Robert Lauby told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

“We have noted that the certification and installation of PTC systems are significant undertakings,” he continued. 

The crash of Amtrak train 188 last month has renewed debate about the merits of the December deadline for the implementation. Prior to the crash near Philadelphia last month, lawmakers had sought to push back the deadline to 2020 at the behest of railroad companies. 

Safety groups have criticized the effort to roll back the deadline, citing reports that the derailed train was traveling 106 miles per hour as it approached a curved section of track. 

“Early forerunners of PTC have been in existence since the 1920’s,” National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairwoman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr told the panel. “Yet more than a decade into the 21st century, we are still hearing that PTC cannot be implemented this year — it is too costly and too difficult. This type of response would not have been tolerated concerning automobile seatbelt or airbag technology, and it should be not be acceptable here.” 

Dinh-Zarr said the NTSB “strongly supports full PTC implementation without delay.

“Each and every day that PTC implementation is delayed, the risk of a PTC-preventable accident remains,” she said. 

The chairman of the Senate transportation panel, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), expressed sympathy for the plight of railroad companies. 

“While I fully support the implementation of PTC, for years I have noted the complexity of its full implementation for both passenger and certain freight railroads,” Thune said. “The mandate covers over 60,000 miles of track and over 20,000 locomotives, and the complexity is compounded by the challenges of achieving seamless interoperability across passenger and freight railroads with differing systems.” 

The South Dakota lawmaker added that there was “broad agreement” in Congress about the need to extend the automated train deadline beyond December prior to the Amtrak accident last month. 

“There is merit in ensuring that railroads focus their time and resources on installing and testing PTC appropriately, so that the systems work as intended, especially given the $6 billion investment to date and the great need to put that investment to use,” he said.  “But there is also merit in providing additional oversight to ensure expeditious implementation.”

Democrats, meanwhile, said the federal government should be providing more funding for the installation of the automated train technology. 

“We have heard at length about the technical challenges that PTC presents and we will hear more about that today,” Sen. Bill Nelson said at the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing. 

“Undoubtedly, the installation of PTC is complex,” the Florida Democrat continued. “However, talking about the technical challenges will not make them go away. If we want to get this technology installed quickly, then we must do more.” 

Nelson said the Amtrak crash last month showed “we need positive train control installed and activated as soon as possible.” 

Tags Amtrak Philadelphia crash Bill Nelson Federal Railroad Administration John Thune National Transportation Safety Board Positive train control

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