It seems inconceivable that trains can still collide as they
did in Los Angeles
Friday, especially when a technology already exists that most likely would have
prevented the accident.
Train Control automatically brakes a locomotive passing through a red
signal and has been under development for years. It's slated on a limited basis
for about 2,600 miles of track in the U.S., according to the Federal Railroad Administration
(FRA). Unfortunately, those plans did not include the MetroLink line northwest
of Los Angeles
where 25 people lost their lives late Friday and scores of others were injured
when a commuter
train smashed into a Union Pacific freight train.
"We strongly support the PTC technology and are working to resolve
remaining issues so it's more affordable and more prevalent for the years to
come," FRA Administrator
Joseph R. Boardman said today. By remaining issues, one is coming up with the
correct software algorithms to stop heavy 100-car freight trains as well as much
lighter and shorter commuter trains.
What's more, issues with interoperability between railroads
must be ironed out. Sufficient and reliable radio frequency bandwidth must be
found so signals can travel between trains, dispatchers and central
computers. And personnel such as dispatchers and engineers must be trained to
use PTC. Finally, it must be affordable, which suggests a price tag can be put
on lives given Friday's carnage.
These seemingly resolvable issues remain even though the
Safety Board (NTSB) has had PTC on it list of "most wanted"
safety improvements since 2001.
And the FRA would prefer the government not force railroads
to adopt PTC. "It does not need to be mandatory. We know it works better when
it's voluntarily applied," Boardman said. The FRA sets safety standards and
rules for the nation's railroads.
That position will be sure to rankle the public, railroad
unions and survivors of Friday's accident. Already, unions have accused
railroads of planning to reduce train crew size if PTC installations move ahead
on a broader scale.
During today's teleconference, Trains magazine columnist and
International Herald Tribune reporter Don Phillips mentioned that a PTC-like
technology has been around for 30 years in use on Burlington Northern (BN) iron
ore trains in Minnesota
and even on steam-powered trains in the 1930s. He wondered why it is taking so long.
Grady Cothen, FRA deputy associative administrator for
safety standards, said the BN system has problems. Boardman said PTC
will not be prevalent for another five years.
"We all thought we had it with original Burlington Northern
systems and it has been frustrating ever since," Cothen said. He added the system will not be applied unless it comes at a "cost we can afford."
Asked what will make PTC affordable, an exasperated Boardman
responded this way:
"I wish we did not have to focus on cost and affordability.
It would be easier if we did not have to focus on cost. For a long period of
time, the government has been required to do those kinds of analysis before a
rule can be put into effect. Railroads can't just go ahead and buy the hardware
and software off the shelf," he said.
The estimated cost to install PTC over 100,000 miles of
track in the U.S.
is estimated to be more than $2 billion, Boardman said.
PTC promises to prevent train-to-train collisions, enforce
speed limits and slow orders and protect maintenance of way workers when they
are on the track. However, experts agree the LA Basin presents an acute
challenge because train density is so high and the freight shares the rails
The Association of American
Railroads, the main lobby for the railroads in Washington, claimed as recently as 2005 that
"current costs far exceed potential benefits" and that PTC is not foolproof. That
was a slide in an AAR
presentation at the National
Board symposium on PTC. The same presentation also
said accidents have already been dramatically reduced since 1980 using less
functional but proven technology such as Centralized
Train Control (CTC), Automatic Train
Control (ATC) and cab
With Friday's accident, the pressure to moderate that view
will be rising.