Opinion

Amtrak crash: Why positive train control is a negative for many railroads

Since 2008, railroads have warned that implementing positive train control nationwide would be difficult

The location may be near Philadelphia, but the story is tragically familiar to anyone in Southern California who commutes by rail: After a deadly derailment -- this one of an Amtrak train apparently traveling more than 100 miles per hour through a curve with a posted speed limit of 50 mph, killing at least eight people -- questions over why technology that may have prevented the accident wasn't in place are being raised in earnest.

That technology, positive train control (PTC), has been among the most sought-after transportation improvements in the nation since the 1990s. After the 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth that killed 25 people -- a tragedy blamed on the distracted Metrolink engineer who had been texting while on duty -- Congress required that most of the country's rail system be updated with PTC by December 2015. 

And since then, railroad officials have explained that the fast-approaching 2015 deadline was unworkable. Twice since 2008, the head of the industry trade group Assn. of American Railroads -- whose members include Amtrak and the largest freight railroads -- has taken to The Times' letters page to warn of the difficulties of implementing PTC by December 2015. His letters highlight the regulatory, logistical and financial hurdles that the railroads must overcome to bring PTC online. Other railroad experts over the years have blamed congressional budget cuts for the lack of adequate safety and cited other technologies that could be implemented more quickly.

But where other railroads have been falling behind on PTC, Southern California's own regional commuter train has been having some success: Metrolink has already brought PTC online for some of its network and hopes to have it in operation systemwide by the end of the year. 

Don Bullock of Encinitas, who worked on rail safety for Metrolink after the Chatsworth crash, sent the following letter to us this week calling on political leaders to prioritize safety:

In response to the horrific train accident between a Los Angeles-based Metrolink commuter rail and a Union Pacific freight train that occurred in October of 2008, the U.S. Congress moved with almost unprecedented speed to enact the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008. The core intent of this legislation was to mandate national implementation of then-available technology to control train movements in a manner that would avoid the occurrence of a similar accident that tragically occurred Tuesday in Philadelphia.

As the project manager for a consultant engineering firm contracted by Metrolink to develop and deliver the system needed to comply with this new law, I fully appreciated the immense challenges of integrating public and privately operated railroads for this purpose. Known as positive train control, or PTC, the system was designed, among other things, to provide a backup control in the event of human failure.

While the objective was simple, it was obvious from the beginning that it would require concerted effort and support from a wide range of stakeholders to meet the RSIA operational deadline of 2015. To make PTC a reality, significant resources and commitment would be needed from the nation’s rail operators and governmental agencies to meet this mandate. Almost immediately, there was pushback to delay the legislative timeline to comply. Hours after Tuesday's accident, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut Amtrak's annual subsidy. 

It is no secret that our national transportation system is struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing demands placed on it by a continuously expanding population. I would hope that the sobering event we just witnessed this week in Pennsylvania will motivate us to place safety as a top priority.

In a letter published Sept. 18, 2013, Edward R. Hamberger, president and chief executive of the Assn. of American Railroads, said implementing PTC would be daunting:

Robert Sumwalt, a National Transportation Safety Board member, is right that implementing positive train control, or PTC, is a daunting task. The Class I freight railroads have spent almost $3 billion to develop and begin deploying PTC, and will spend another $5 billion before it can be safely used across the country.

But significant obstacles make meeting the 2015 implementation deadline impossible. And contrary to what Sumwalt stated, the nation's railroads have been specific and public about this.

To make PTC work, freight railroads will use advanced signaling systems that require the installation of about 22,000 antennas, which requires Federal Communications Commission approval. However, the FCC recently directed the railroads to suspend antenna installations while it develops a procedure for addressing possible historic preservation and environmental review issues.

Until the FCC develops a workable procedure, installation of the PTC antennas is at a standstill.

Those who say that PTC must be implemented by the legal deadline ignore the technical, operational and regulatory issues that must be addressed first.

Previously, Hamberger wrote in a letter published Sept. 18, 2008, that the key to effective PTC is getting freight rail on board:

Your article was right to point out that if positive train control technology is to work, the anti-collision technology must be used by freight and passenger rail.

That is not the case today. In California, there are roughly 5,000 miles of rail track, over which more than 20 freight railroads, five regional and commuter operators, as well as Amtrak, run trains. All those railroads need to be equipped with collision avoidance systems that communicate with one another if we are to reduce the likelihood of accidents.

We look forward to working with passenger rail and commuter agencies, as well as the Federal Railroad Administration, to implement a standardized anti-collision system.

Writing in a letter published Dec. 8, 2013., about a derailment that year in New York, Rail Passenger Assn. of California and Nevada President Paul Dyson said there are simpler safety fixes than PTC:

While Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) calls for installation of new technology known as "positive train control," the fact is that railroad signaling equipment that most likely would have prevented the New York derailment has existed for many years.

Approach control at junctions uses electronic circuits in the track to prevent a signal turning green until a train's speed has been reduced to the line limit. If a train passes the red signal, automatic train stop (ATS) applies the brakes.

These systems date back to the late 1800s and, in modern form, provide protection to train passengers around the world.

Approach control adds a few minutes to the running time of a train, which may explain why it was not in use in New York. ATS was not installed during the 2008 Metrolink train crash in Chatsworth because it was not required, as the speed limit was lower than 90 mph.

ATS is considered obsolete, but it works. Instead, we have opted for a high-tech solution that may or may not do the job when it is switched on.

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