Dianne Feinstein/Deborah Hersman: Time to bring railroad safety systems into the 21st century - Ventura County Star
By Dianne Feinstein and Deborah Hersman
Sep 22 2013
In July, as we heard the tragic details of two deadly passenger train crashes in Europe, we had the same thought: the lessons of the deadly 2008 Chatsworth train crash have yet to be learned.
These accidents and many others could have been prevented if positive train control - a modern, integrated safety system to monitor and control train movements - were in place.
While airlines and car manufacturers are routinely required to upgrade safety technologies in new models, rail companies continue to use signaling systems developed in the 19th century or operate on track with no signals at all. Many rail accidents occur because a single engineer misses a red light.
The industry's failure to deploy modern signaling systems - known as positive train control or PTC - has had deadly results, and while federal law requires many U.S. rail lines to deploy this technology by 2015, several rail companies are lobbying to delay its implementation.
The latest blow to implementation came last month when legislation was introduced in the Senate to delay PTC deployment by at least five years.
We believe that PTC - a technology that automatically overrides an engineer's control of a train to prevent collisions and stop trains in certain dangerous situations - must be implemented as soon as possible, especially on high-risk lines.
In just the last 10 years, the National Transportation Safety Board has completed 26 investigations of train accidents in the United States that could have been prevented by PTC. These accidents claimed 65 lives and injured more than 1,000 people. Damages totaled hundreds of millions of dollars.
The most deadly accident that could have been prevented by PTC was the Metrolink-Union Pacific collision near Chatsworth. The force of that collision caused the Metrolink locomotive to telescope into the lead passenger coach by more than 50 feet.
Within weeks of the Chatsworth tragedy, Congress passed and President George Bush signed into law the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which calls for implementation of PTC on rail lines that carry passengers and certain hazardous materials.
Nearly five years later, only four railroads - Alaska Railroad, Amtrak, BNSF and Los Angeles-based Metrolink - have stepped up with plans to meet the 2015 deadline. The others, notably the freight railroads represented by the Association of American Railroads, say meeting that deadline is unlikely.
They claim that it is too costly, too complicated and too soon. If you look at the history of railroading, that's a familiar refrain. The same complaint was used when Congress called for automatic couplers and air brakes.
PTC could also prove to be a spectacular safety and business investment. Benefits of PTC include decreased delays, increased capacity, improved reliability and environmental benefits, including better energy utilization and reduced emissions.
What must be especially frustrating for the four railroads that are implementing PTC is that they could still be penalized. In order for it to work, all railroads that share track must be equipped. In fact, that's the very reason a federal PTC mandate makes sense. Those four railroads, in good faith, will keep moving ahead while other lines delay and defer.
Positive train control would allow freight and commuter trains from different companies to communicate with each other and prevent collisions. But until all trains that operate on PTC lines are equipped with the technology, an inherent danger still exists because the full benefits require interoperability.
The result will be more NTSB investigations of deadly crashes, such as the May 2011 rear-end collision between two CSX freight trains in Mineral Springs, N.C., and the June 2012 collision of two Union Pacific trains in Goodwell, Okla. These collisions killed five crew members, destroyed cars and goods and put tracks out of service for days.
Implementing PTC will lead to safer railroads, for passengers, employees and the millions of families living near rail lines. We owe it to the Chatsworth victims not to delay.Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein represents California in the U.S. Senate. Deborah Hersman is chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.