RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Lives lost in mangled wreckage, the tragic result of deadly train derailments.
There’s lifesaving technology designed to protect passengers that was supposed to be ready to implement by the end of the year, but that deadline likely will be delayed.
The issue of safety of on passenger trains garnered renewed interest in this spring when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring 200.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board say the train reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, double the speed limit in that area.
It’s a tragedy they say never had to happen.
“If we believe the cause of this crash was speed, it would have been prevented by positive train control,” said Sarah Feinberg, the acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration during a Congressional hearing on the derailment.
She says positive train control, or PTC, is the most important safety improvement for trains in a century.
So what exactly is it?
Using a wireless communication system, PTC can sense when a train could collide with another train, or if one is going too fast. It’s designed to automatically stop or slow the train, potentially preventing another tragedy on the tracks.
To view a video of PTC in action, click here: https://www.aar.org/Pages/PTC—Meeting-the-Challenge-and-Getting-It-Right.aspx
Congress mandated in 2008 that railroads have this technology implemented by the end of 2015, but meeting that deadline has proven more difficult than people thought.
“Overall, it’s a good upgrade, but a lot is coming at one time,” said Paul Worley, head of the rail division at the North Carolina Department of Transportation. He’s overseeing the state’s implementation of positive train control.
Almost half a million passengers rode trains on the Piedmont and Carolinian lines last year.
Worley expects the equipment for PTC will be installed on those lines by the end of the year, but whether it’s functioning?
“Well, that’s another thing as far as operational,” said Worley.
The Government Accountability Office surveyed about 30 railroads, and found only one-third expect to meet the Congressionally mandated deadline to put PTC in place. To view the study, click here (Link: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-739 )
WNCN asked Worley, “What’s been the challenge in getting all of this implemented, if this technology actually could save people’s lives?”
He said, “You’re building a nationwide system of towers, of radio towers and radio bay stations that talk with mobile communicators.”
He thinks the system could be up and running here by the middle of next year, but other railroad managers have not been as optimistic.
“It’s a very complex task when you’re looking at every railroad that carries passenger trains, any passenger train, or any railroad that carries hazardous materials,” said Worley.
Extending the deadline has been the focus of an intense lobbying effort in recent months, including by the American Association of Railroads. The group wants Congress to extend the deadline to 2018, plus additional time for testing.
The House included a provision to do that in a bill that passed Tuesday dealing with highway funding. The Senate agreed Wednesday, pushing the new deadline to 2018, with railroads receiving additional time to implement PTC on a case-by-case basis.
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R) agrees the railroads need more time.
“They were delayed by decisions, by guidance from the regulators. And, when you look when the final guidance was in, there just really isn’t enough time for the rollout of that technology,” said Burr.
Failing to meet the deadline would have meant trains don’t run. Amtrak sent a letter to members of Congress notifying them the agency will suspend service in mid-December if the deadline is not extended.
“We’re committed to make sure that technology is in place, but you can’t ask a company to do it faster than is humanly possible and probably financially devastating to some,” said Burr.
The NCDOT says trains struck and killed 20 people last year who were illegally on the tracks.
Not all incidents like that are preventable, but experts say PTC has the ability to reduce fatal incidents involving trains overall.
Worley said, “It is definitely a safety improvement. It’s a technology that we’ll build on in this country one day. It has the potential to do more. It has the potential to make railroads more efficient.”