Some railroads won’t meet Positive Train Control deadlines, officials say

Several railroads will likely fail to meet congressionally-mandated deadlines for installation of Positive Train Control, technology that could have prevented at least 23 deaths and more than 300 injuries over the past decade, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt testified Thursday.

PTC uses an integrated set of sensors on trains and tracks to automatically slow or stop locomotives in dangerous situations. It’s designed to prevent overspeed derailments, work zone incursions, and train-to-train collisions, such as the Feb. 4 crash in Cayce, S.C., where an Amtrak train slammed into a parked freight train, killing two people and injuring more than a hundred others. The current technology does not prevent grade-crossing accidents, like the one involving a train carrying GOP lawmakers in Crozet, Va.

“It took us less than nine years to put a person on the moon, and the industry can’t get this done?” a frustrated John Tolman, the rail workers union vice-president, asked at the hearing.

Back in 2008, Congress passed a law requiring PTC be activated by 2015. But in 2012, Congress extended the hardware instillation deadline to 2018, and even gave railroads the option to apply for a 24-month extension to “flip the switch,” effectively extending the activation deadline to 2020. Despite these accommodations, some rail companies won’t have hardware ready to go by the end of the year – forcing the companies that will have to comply with the deadlines, like Amtrak, to suspend service on tracks that lack the technology.

“Without PTC, the system is too vulnerable to single points of failure, many of which are dependent upon the memory of a single human being interacting with a big, complicated system” Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson testified.

Limited availability of parts and complications integrating equipment from different vendors has slowed the process, several industry experts explained.

After getting skewered for what some lawmakers saw as a failure to hold railroads accountable, the Federal Railroad Administration Thursday announced $73 million in grant money to pay for safety initiatives like PTC and improved grade crossings.