Tags: amtrak | Positive Train Control | money | costs

Installation of Train Speed Control System Marred by Obstacles

By    |   Tuesday, 19 May 2015 12:56 PM

A mishmash of daunting obstacles are blocking nationwide installation of speed control high-tech systems which, had they been in place, could have prevented last week's fatal Amtrak train derailment near Philadelphia.

Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, required in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, was to be in place and operational by December of this year, but problems of politics, bureaucracy, money, and opposition from railroad groups have delayed its installation, The New York Times reported.

If installed, PTC could protect trains against speeding derailments, collisions with other trains and track obstacles, and misaligned train signals.

Congress, recognizing that the called-for improvements have not happened on schedule, is debating an extension of the deadline for PTC installment. In the meantime, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has ordered Amtrak to install a simpler technology, Automatic Train Control (ATC), on more of its tracks while waiting for the installation of the more advanced PTC systems, the Times said.

Congress is divided, with Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, and Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, proposing a bill to extend the deadline by five years, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, instead has proposed granting one-year extensions to railroads until 2018.

Feinstein said, "The railroad industry has been lobbying furiously to delay the mandate, and the Senate Commerce Committee has put forward a bill granting a blanket extension for five to seven years. In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy," the Christian Science Monitor reported.

The Washington-to-New York Amtrak train derailed after accelerating up to 106 mph while approaching a curve with a limit of 50 mph, which ATC and PTC both would have stopped, USA Today reported.

However, the high costs of installing the system nationwide have caused railroads, including 22 commuter rail lines and Amtrak, to delay installing the devices, and the railroad industry, chiefly freight railroads, to push for longer delays, the Times said.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) told the Times its operators have spent $5.2 billion on PTC technology and are expecting to spend billions more.

AAR said, "Railroads expect to spend more than $9 billion before development and installation is complete. Despite railroads' best efforts, various technical and nontechnical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible," the Monitor reported.

Beefing up technology is often a trade-off, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said. "Anyone who knows Amtrak knows it has been robbing Peter to pay Paul. If it wants to do PTC, it can’t do track maintenance. If it wants to do track maintenance, it can’t do signal maintenance," he said.

For example, Metra, the Chicago commuter rail, would require over $350 million to install the system, and CEO Don Orseno told the Times, "The challenge is we don’t have that kind of money. That’s a huge, huge number."

To date, only 15 percent of locomotives are equipped, and the technology is installed only on 8,200 miles of tracks, out of 60,000 miles required by Congress to be included, AAR reported.

Problems of track ownership and obtaining radio frequencies the PTC requires to operate have added to the difficulties. At the same time, railroad accidents have been dropping, from 4.1 accidents per million train miles in 2005 to just 2.3 in 2014, for both passenger and freight, and from 2.3 in 2005 to 1.3 in 2014 for passenger trains alone, the Times reported.

Steven Ditmeyer, former director of research and development for the FRA, told National Public Radio, "There has been a general conclusion on the part of railroads, unions, the federal regulators and so on, that the safety benefits alone do not justify the very large investment in PTC."

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A mishmash of daunting obstacles are blocking nationwide installation of speed control high-tech systems which, had they been in place, could have prevented last week's fatal Amtrak train derailment near Philadelphia.
amtrak, Positive Train Control, money, costs
Tuesday, 19 May 2015 12:56 PM
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