A looming safety deadline has railroad operators balking and asking Congress to push back the date by which they must have installed new anti-crash signaling systems. Earlier this month, the Senate Commerce Committee held hearings about the issue and about delays among rail operators in installing the life-saving systems.
The rail anti-crash technology, known as Positive Train Control or PTC, is designed to automatically stop a train before it is able to run a red signal or get itself into other dangerous situations. This is an improvement over the signaling systems that are currently in place, which are able to warn train operators of danger, but still allow the possibility of accidents.
Positive Train Control is not a new idea, but an old one that garnered a lot of attention after the September 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth, CA. As the Metrolink train sped ahead, its engineer began texting a friend. The operator’s inattention led the train to run a red light and slam into an oncoming freight train. The engineer died, along with two-dozen passengers and 102 others were hospitalized. In the wake of that terrible crash, President George W. Bush signed a law requiring railroads to install the PTC systems by the end of 2015. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the mandate applies to at least 25 U.S. passenger systems carrying nearly 564 million passengers annually.
Officials with the National Transportation safety Board say that while rail operators have complained about the immense cost of the new signaling system, they equate this complaining with the airline industry’s response to an order to install collision avoidance systems on all aircraft. Sure, the NTSB says the decision was a costly and time consuming one, but it resulted in the virtual elimination of midair collisions. Deborah Hersman, Chairman of the NTSB, says, “They said it was too expensive and they couldn't do it. It was mandated, it was implemented, it changed countless lives." The same can be said for the PTC signaling system.
The Federal Railroad Administration says the system could prevent 52 accidents a year, ranging from nonfatal rail-yard mishaps to deadly train crashes. The NTSB says the had the new PTC system already been in place, it would have prevented at least 15 train crashes since 2005 that killed 50 people and injured 942 others. The U.S. needs to keep up with other developed countries like those in Europe and parts of Asia which already have their own version of PTC system in place on train tracks.
Though some railroad operators have said they will meet the 2015 deadline, including Metrolink and Amtrak, most are asking Congress for an extension. Chicago-based Metra, the second-busiest commuter railroad in the country, has revealed that it is already operating under the assumption that Congress will vote to delay the PTC mandate by three years, meaning compliance will not be required until sometime in 2018.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen does not support any delay in implementation of Positive Train Control, believing the technology represents a watershed safety improvement for the nation's railroads. Though the railroads publicly discuss their commitment to safety, they have tried to delay implementation of the new PTC system at every turn, and have tried to create numerous exceptions for specific types of track that will not be required to have PTC.
Though the new signaling system is undoubtedly expensive and presents a time consuming challenge for railroad operators, the fact of the matter is that for every year the system is delayed or not put in, someone dies who did not have to. There will always be a reason not to do something, either cost or inconvenience, but that should not stop the government from insisting that railroad companies do whatever they can to make the nation’s rails as safe as they can possibly be.