Railroads make slight progress installing life-saving technology

Railroads make slight progress installing life-saving technology
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Railroads have made slight progress in installing a potentially life-saving train technology, with freight rails making more headway than passenger rails in recent months.

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But both rail systems still have a long way to go in implementing Positive Train Control (PTC), according to a new report from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The automated braking system will eventually be required by law.

In the third quarter of 2016, freight rails have equipped 20 percent of their track segments with PTC, up from 11 percent in the first half of this year.

Passenger rails, however, have made zero progress in completing track segments. The FRA report shows that 77 track segments were finished in the third quarter — the same number as the first half of 2016.

“The FRA’s latest status update illustrates the complexities involved in developing, installing and then thoroughly testing this complex, revolutionary technology to ensure it is providing additional safety benefits,” said Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

PTC is an automated braking system that slows down a train going over the speed limit, which can prevent collisions, derailments and improper switching.

Congress originally gave commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the technology, but as railroads struggled to meet compliance deadlines, lawmakers pushed back the PTC implementation date to at least Dec. 31, 2018.

But recent deadly train crashes — including a speeding New Jersey Transit train that slammed into the Hoboken station — have stepped up pressure on railroads to come into compliance sooner.

The technology is currently operating along 12 percent of freight routes, up from 9 percent in the first half of this year. It’s operating along 23 percent of passenger routes, up from 22 percent in the first two quarters.

Freight rails have equipped 38 percent of their locomotives with PTC, which is an increase of 4 percentage points from the first half of this year. But passenger rails still only have 29 percent of locomotives installed with the technology.

When it comes to training, both rail systems have shown more movement. Freight rails have completed 50 percent of training and passenger rails have completed 44 percent.

So far, the freight rail industry is estimated to have spent more than $7.1 billion on PTC, with final costs expected to reach about $10.6 billion by the time it is fully operational, according to the AAR.

“The reality is that this revolutionary technology is not off-the shelf — it had to be developed from scratch and isn’t just about plugging in or turning on components,” Greenberg said. “It is a complex step-by-step process, both in terms of safety, engineering and implementation.”