Last updated: 10:36 PM ET, Sun August 09 2015

FRA Report: Only Handful of US Railroads Close to Meeting Safety System Deadline

Impacting Travel | Michael Isenbek | August 09, 2015

FRA Report: Only Handful of US Railroads Close to Meeting Safety System Deadline

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An end-of-year deadline is looming for all U.S. railroads to install safety systems, yet only a few have a chance to get their part up and running by Dec. 31 as per a government report released Friday, the Associated Press said.

The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) report said, via the AP, the technology, called “positive train control” or PTC, can prevent crashes, and derailments from excessive speed, the cause of May’s Amtrak crash outside Philadelphia.

As per the AP, PTC utilizes a combination of GPS, wireless radio and computers to keep track of train position and stop or slow trains automatically that are in danger of derailing from speed, about to collide with another train or are entering an area where tracks are being worked on.

Submitting safety plans to the government is a key step before the PTC system can be put to use, said the report, which revealed just three railroads have done so:

BNSF Railway, the second largest freight railroad in the U.S., and a pair of commuter railroads — Metrolink in the Los Angeles area, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in the Philadelphia area.

Amtrak hasn't submitted a plan yet, but the AP said railroad officials expect the PTC system to be working in that railroad’s busy Northeast Corridor by the deadline.

As per the report and the AP, there are some railroads far behind on PTC implementation. Union Pacific, the nation's largest freight service is running all 6,532 locomotives without the technology and none of Norfolk Southern's 3,400 locomotives have PTC either.

Why should passenger train travelers be concerned with freight train operations? The AP stated such railroads “often host commuter railroad operations on their tracks. In addition, the AP said, “they also frequently use the tracks of their competitors.”

Different companies using the same length of track presents challenges in the effort to get PTC running smoothly. As per the AP, these include acquiring the right radio spectrums and getting permission to install thousands of antennas along the tracks.

The countdown clock started for railroads when Congress passed a rail safety law in 2008, giving them seven years to implement PTC. But as the AP noted, this technology is expensive, and many rail companies began the process late.

So railroads have been seeking an extension from Congress as the deadline loomed. But the AP said after the accident in May, “support for a lengthy extension diminished” when investigators concluded that a functioning PTC could have prevented the tragedy.

The Senate passed a transportation bill in July, the AP said, that gives railroads another three years to install PTC, but didn’t specify whether the system had to be certified by the government.

As explained by the AP, the National Transportation Safety Board has been insisting that railroads install train control systems in the vein of PTC for over four decades. The board said in that time, they have investigated 145 accidents that could have been prevented by PTC. Over 300 people were killed and 6,700 injured in these incidents.

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