Federal regulators say the nation's railroads are making slow and uneven progress in installing positive train control, technology that could prevent train crashes, and there is growing concern that several railroads may not make the government's deadline for implementing the system.
Positive train control uses GPS, trackside signals, onboard computers and other technologies to slow down or stop a train that is going too fast. It is seen as a major safety improvement that can reduce the risk of human factors in crashes, such as an operator or engineer nodding off or missing signals because of distractions.
Investigators say the system could have prevented the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured more than 200 others in May 2015. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded earlier this year that Amtrak engineer Brandon Bostian was distracted by radio transmissions about rocks being thrown at and striking another train, causing him to miss a warning signal and run the train way too fast into a curve, where the train derailed.
Railroads have until December 2018 to install and implement the complex technology on their fleets of locomotives and along thousands of miles of tracks, but new data released Monday by the Federal Railroad Administration shows many railroads are way behind schedule.
"Unfortunately, we've got a very long way to go in terms of railroads finalizing and getting positive train control implemented," says FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg. "We would have to see incredibly dramatic progress between now and the deadline two years from now in order for all the railroads to make it."
According to quarterly reports filed with the FRA, as of Sept. 30, freight railroads have PTC installed and operational on 12 percent of their tracks across the country, up from 9 percent at the end of June. Passenger railroads have PTC up and running on 23 percent of their tracks nationwide, up from 22 percent at the end of the previous quarter.
But those national figures don't tell the whole story, which is that some railroads are making significant progress, especially in the Western U.S., while others, particularly those in the East, have made little progress.
Amtrak, for example, has installed positive train control on most of the 450 miles of track it owns between Washington, D.C., and Boston.
SEPTA, the commuter rail service in the Philadelphia area, has PTC nearly fully installed and implemented throughout its system.
But the nation's three busiest commuter railroads, all in the New York City area, lag far behind. The FRA's figures show Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit — which together carry nearly 1 million commuters each day — have made very little progress installing and implementing PTC.
Representatives for the railroads tell the Associated Press that the government data do not fully reflect their progress. The LIRR and Metro-North have trained more employees in the system, they've installed PTC technology on more than 300 train cars and they have placed more than 2,000 transponders along their tracks. Tom Prendergast, chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, says both the LIRR and Metro-North are moving "aggressively and diligently" to fully implement PTC before the December 2018 deadline set by Congress.
Of the freight railroads, which own the vast majority of tracks in the U.S., BNSF appears to be making the most progress, with PTC installed on 38 percent of its track segments and 88 percent of its locomotives.
Nonetheless, FRA Administrator Feinberg seems frustrated with the slow and uneven progress.
"We have a technology available to us that will make rail travel safer and protect communities and protect passengers," she says. "Why in the world are we still waiting to get this technology implemented? It's high time that it be on every railroad."
The technology for positive train control has existed for decades, but railroads resisted installing and implementing it until a Metrolink commuter train crashed into a freight train in 2008, killing 25 people. Investigators say the commuter train's engineer had been texting and missed a stop signal.
Congress then mandated the technology be installed on all trains by 2015, but last year it extended the deadline by three years when it became apparent many railroads wouldn't make the deadline because of the complexities of developing and implementing the system.
Freight railroads have already invested $7.1 billion in the complex technology and spend $100 million a month on development, testing and installation, according to the Association of American Railroads. The industry group expects the final costs to reach about $10.6 billion by the time the technology is fully operational on 60,000 miles of track from coast to coast.
"The FRA's latest status update illustrates the complexities involved in developing, installing and then thoroughly testing this complex, revolutionary technology to ensure it is providing additional safety benefits," says AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg.
"Implementing this developed-from-scratch technology remains a priority for the nation's freight rail industry with Class 1 freight railroads remaining on track at having PTC fully installed by the deadline" of December 2018, he said.