The US National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates major train accidents but has no power to regulate, has been calling for railroads to implement an automated Positive Train Control system for 45 years.
Congress finally mandated that it be deployed by the end of 2015. But the railroads say that they need a little more time.
"You and I can open the garage door, and arm the house alarms from our iPhone, but the railroad industry, which is a multibillion dollar industry, refuses to invest in public safety unless there's a fundamental change that requires them to," says Robert Pottroff, who for years has represented victims of train accidents and their survivors in cases against the railroads.
The railroads say that Positive Train Control, or PTC, is not as easy as an iPhone app. Much of the technology PTC requires simply did not exist when the PTC mandate was passed seven years ago and has had to be developed from scratch, said the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The companies so far have spent $5.2 billion on the integrated command and control systems, but the railroads say it is a challenging task to make the systems interoperable across many different freight and passenger rail lines.
"While...progress has been substantial, much remains to be done before PTC can safely operate coast to coast," said Ed Hamberger, AAR president and chief executive. He praised legislation just introduced by Republican Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Thune of South Dakota, and Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Ben Nelson of Florida, to give the railroads five more years.
"This bill provides railroads the time necessary to fully and safely implement PTC without having to navigate an arbitrary and infeasible statutory deadline," Hamberger said.
It is not entirely clear that PTC would prevent the kind of pedestrian and highway crossing accidents that have resulted in an increase in train fatalities over the past year, said U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) spokesman Michael Booth. PTC is a communication-based control technology designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into work zone limits, or the movement of a train through a main-line switch in the improper position. It wouldn't stop the train if a pedestrian were on the tracks, and trains are so heavy that they need adequate stopping room no matter what high-tech equipment is aboard.
But Pottroff said that once PTC is installed, it can be a technology platform for other needed steps to modernize rail safety. "This isn't just keeping things from running into each other," Pottroff said. "As soon as you put in Positive Train Control, I can put active warning devices in at every crossing in the United States inexpensively." Only half of the 125,355 public at-grade crossings in the United States have automated warning systems and only a third have flashing lights and gates, according to the FRA.
Some of the record $29 billion in capital expansion spending that the railroads plan this year will be devoted to Positive Train Control. There are no figures available on how much of that will be allocated for PTC industry-wide, but BNSF Railway, the company with the largest capital plan this year, plans to devote just $200 million, or 3 percent, of its $6 billion in capital spending to the safety system this year.
The full capital cost of PTC, the railroads say, will be $9 billion, with hundreds of millions more needed to maintain the system after that.
According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, profits for the seven biggest U.S. freight railroads last year were $14.5 billion, up 7 percent over the prior year and 80 percent higher than in 2008.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.