Rail companies are asking Congress for a five-year extension to a 2015 deadline to set up new accident-prevention technology, citing the expensive and complicated nature of Positive Train Control (PTC).
PTC deters train wrecks, 40 percent of which are caused by human error. It combines GPS, track-side devices, wireless radio, and software into a monitoring system for train position and speed. It can slow or stop a train before a collision due to excessive speed (like the 2013 crash in Spain), ignoring a red signal (as in L.A. Metrolink's 2008 incident), and track incursions (which caused a 2012 accident in Valparaiso, Ind.). A distracted driver texting or talking on a cell phone formed the human factor in all three accidents.
Unmanned trains could also benefit from the safety technology: Brake failure derailed a driverless train last July in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town in a massive explosion.
In 2008, a month after the L.A. Metrolink crash, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act and gave railroad companies seven years and three months to install PTC on main lines used to carry passengers or “toxic-by-inhalation” materials. The legislation involves some 63,000 miles of U.S. track.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said in a Senate rail safety hearing in June: “I think it’s important that we as Congress be careful not to impose undue regulation on the railroad industry,” especially if regulations sap money needed for infrastructure improvements.
Thune, chief sponsor of the bill to extend the 2015 deadline, has financial links to the industry. Since 1998, he has received $672,836 in political contributions from railroads and associated individuals—as have the other three original co-sponsors of the bill.
Safety, labor, and passenger advocates say such contributions prove railroad companies are using the deadline extension to stall compliance through political manipulation. They believe most railroads will never fully implement the PTC system without constant government pressure.
But the industry itself only stands to gain from enhancing train safety. “This is not an issue where the industry is trying to get out of this mandate,” said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. “We have invested too much in it already, and it is in our best interest to get it done as soon as possible.”
Few railroad companies are set to meet the 2015 deadline, even after substantial work towards the goal. The rest say despite spending billions of dollars on PTC implementation, they face logistical and technical hurdles such as integrating complicated software systems and overseeing devices and tracks shared by passenger and freight trains.