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N.Y. Train Crash Spotlights Push For Automatic Safety System

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N.Y. Train Crash Spotlights Push For Automatic Safety System

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N.Y. Train Crash Spotlights Push For Automatic Safety System

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Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Zooming along at 82 miles an hour when it hit a curve with a speed limit of 30, the commuter train that derailed last Sunday in New York was going way too fast. There is a system that can automatically slow down a train that is going too fast if the driver doesn't act. But NPR's David Schaper reports the problem is most trains don't have it.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing along railroad tracks on Chicago's south side, right about at the spot where in September 2005, a Metra commuter train derailed, killing two passengers and injuring dozens more. That train was traveling 69 miles an hour as entered a crossover, a spot where the speed limit was just 10.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the engineer was driving too fast and failed to heed warning signals, adding that positive train control, which can override human error and apply the brakes, could have prevented that crash. That safety system is coming up again in the investigation of this week's crash in New York.

EARL WEENER: For more than 20 years, the NTSB has recommended the implementation of PTC technology.

SCHAPER: National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener.

WEENER: 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.

SCHAPER: Shortly after the 2008 crash of a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train that killed 25 people, Congress mandated that all railroads install and implement Positive Train Control systems by the end of 2015. But rail industry experts say that's proving to be a very difficult task.

CHRIS BARKAN: This is a massive systems integration problem.

SCHAPER: Professor Chris Barkan is executive director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois.

BARKAN: We're talking 60,000 miles of tracks that have to be fitted with complicated new hardware and software. There's something like 20,000 locomotives that will need the onboard equipment.

SCHAPER: 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 the experts call the interoperability of the railroads' Positive Train Control systems. Holly Arthur of the Association of American Railroads explains:

HOLLY ARTHUR: 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.

SCHAPER: And the cost of implementing PTC nationwide is estimated to be more than $13 billion. The commercial freight railroads can afford their share, but regional commuter rail agencies?

MICHAEL GILLIS: This is an unfunded mandate.

SCHAPER: Michael Gillis is a spokesman for the Chicago area's commuter rail agency, Metra.

GILLIS: Part of the problem is we have to pay for this with our conventional capital funding sources.

SCHAPER: 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. An August report by the Government Accountability Office says only a few passenger and freight railroads will be ready by 2015. But in the wake of Sunday's deadly crash, few in Congress may be willing to vote for a delay. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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