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Positive Train Control Systems

Drone image of Amtrak train accident

More commuter trains and freight trains share rails in California than in any other state, yet known and available warning and control systems meant to prevent train to train collisions like the deadly Chatsworth Metrolink crash, called Positive Train Control Systems (PTC), have never been implemented.

In fact, PTC has existed for decades. The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, began calling for sophisticated warning and control systems, like the PTC, about 30 years ago and has included Positive Train Control systems as one of its “most wanted” Transportation Safety Improvements since 1990.

After two commuter train accidents in 1996, the NTSB publically stated that it hoped the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) would make a firm commitment to positive train separation and establish a firm timetable for its implementation. The Safety Board was pleased to see in the FRA’s February 20, 1996, Emergency Order 20 that “… the most effective preventative measure is a highly effective train control system,” especially automatic systems.

The tragic accidents that brought about Emergency Order 20 (EO 20) involved the New Jersey Transit accident at Secaucus, New Jersey on February 9, 1996, and the MARC-Amtrak collision at Silver Spring, Maryland on February 16, 1996, in which Baum Hedlund represented six victims.

Among the solutions EO 20 proposed, one involved “new technologies currently under development and demonstration that can prevent collisions and over-speed derailments are known as “Positive Train Separation” (PTS), “Positive Train Control” (PTC), or “Advanced Train Control Systems”(ATCS).

EO 20 goes on to state that since most train collisions on the railroad result from human factors, the most effective preventive measure is a highly effective train control system. Cab signal systems serve an important safety purpose because they provide a constant display of the governing signal indication. This provides a corrective measure should an engineer fail to note, forget, or misread a restrictive wayside signal indication. Even greater security is provided by a train control system capable of intervening should the engineer fail to observe signals and operating rules for whatever reason (e.g., lack of alertness due to fatigue, sudden incapacitation, loss of situational awareness due to unusual events). Such systems are referred to as automatic train control or automatic train stop systems.

The NTSB reiterated their belief in the need for this technology after a freight train and a passenger train collided in Placentia, California, in 2002. The board adds that the need for such a collision-avoidance system is greater in “high-risk corridors,” much like the curve in the track in Chatsworth where the Metrolink and freight train collided. On their website, the NTSB states that “Positive Train Control” is particularly important in places where passenger trains and freight trains both operate.”

PTC systems comprise digital data link communication networks, positioning systems, and onboard computers meant to provide a greater level of safety and security on the railroads. The sophisticated technology of PTC would automatically put the brakes on a train passing through a red signal, a device that would have saved 25 lives and scores of injuries in what is now the deadliest American train crash in 15 years. It also has the capability to provide improved running time, greater running time reliability, and assist railroads in managing costs and improving energy efficiency.

The use of PTC systems exists in only limited areas, including the Northeast and between Chicago and Detroit.

The NTSB has been critical of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for their delays in implementing systems like PTC across America. Unfortunately, although the NTSB has the ability to investigate and make recommendations on safety issues, it does not have the power to order federal agencies to take power.

Many in Southern California are wondering: If there existed a collision-avoidance system that could have prevented this catastrophic disaster, why has it not been applied to our railroads? And if it has been around for 30 years, what is taking so long?

According to railroad officials, it simply costs too much. Many railroad experts claim that the costs of PTC systems outweigh the benefits.

Some railroad officials, including FRA administrator Joseph R. Boardman, have said that PTC is far too costly and has yet to be proved completely dependable. In a teleconference held on September 15, Boardman addressed questions and concerns regarding the absence of PTC in our nation’s railroads.

Boardman said that although the FRA strongly supports the PTC technology, there are remaining issues that must be dealt with before the technology is implemented. He went on to say, “I wish we did not have to focus on cost and affordability… Railroads can’t just go ahead and buy the hardware and software off the shelf.”

PTC covers about 4,000 miles of track in the United States. The estimated cost to cover about 100,000 miles of track nationwide is estimated to be more than $2 billion.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), the lobbying arm for the freight railroads, argues that the PTC system needs more testing and it has not been proven completely effective. However, NTSB board member Kitty Higgins disagrees. “I’ve seen it tested,” she said. “It makes a difference.”

It is difficult to imagine a price on human lives, but that is exactly what the FRA and AAR are implying when they argue the affordability of a technology that is capable of preventing accidents as terrifying and tragic as the Metrolink crash in Chatsworth.

In the wake of the Chatsworth crash, U.S. legislators have given railroads until 2015 to implement Positive Train Control Systems. The collision avoidance systems must be installed on all main routes for passenger trains and routes in which freight lines transport hazardous materials.

These train control systems will have the power to correct human mistakes on our railroads. Seven years is a very long time to wait, especially when so many lives can be lost in mere seconds.



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