A commuter train crash that killed four passengers in New York is raising questions about whether a high-tech safety system could have prevented the derailment.
The train was traveling 82 miles an hour on Dec. 1 as it went into a curve where the speed limit is 30. The safety system, called positive train control, or PTC, can automatically slow down a train that is going too fast.
But most trains don't have it.
"For more than 20 years, the [National Transportation Safety Board] has recommended the implementation of PTC technology," board member Earl Weener told reporters on Tuesday. "PTC is proven technology that can prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments and incursions into work zones. Since this is a derailment involving a high-speed train, it's possible that PTC could have prevented it."
While New York's Metro-North Railroad doesn't have the safety system in place, the Federal Railroad Administration on Friday ordered it to overhaul its signal system and temporarily put an extra worker in the driver's cab on some routes that have major speed changes, like the one involved in the Dec. 1 derailment.
Across the country, all railroads are supposed to install and implement the high-tech positive train control systems by the end of 2015. Congress mandated the change shortly after the 2008 crash of a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train that killed 25 people.
But rail industry experts say it's proving to be a very difficult task.
"This is a massive systems integration problem," says Chris Barkan, executive director of the Rail, Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois. "We're talking 60,000 miles of track that have to be fitted with complicated new hardware and software. There's something like 20,000 locomotives that will need the onboard equipment."
That includes Wi-Fi, GPS, radio and other technologies. And the railroads also need to install 20,000 new cell signaling towers along those 60,000 miles of track. Then there's what experts call the "interoperability" of the railroads' positive train control systems.
"All the railroads' PTC systems — passenger rail, freight rail, small and regional railroads — all of their PTC systems must be able to talk to each other," says Holly Arthur of the Association of American Railroads.
The cost of implementing PTC nationwide is estimated to be more than $13 billion. The commercial freight railroads can afford their share, but what about regional commuter rail agencies?
"This is an unfunded mandate," says Michael Gillis, a spokesman for Metra, Chicago's commuter train agency.
One of its trains derailed in 2005, killing two passengers — another crash the NTSB says might have been prevented by PTC. Metra's cost for implementing PTC, which is partially done, will be $235 million. But because Congress provided no new funding for the system, Gillis says, the railroads have to pay for the system with "conventional capital funding sources." For Metra, that's the money that also goes to track improvements, bridge repairs and other safety needs.
So the rail industry has been asking Congress to push back its PTC implementation deadline by three years, to 2018, and to offer funding for it.