On December 18th, 2017, an Amtrak passenger train derailed and killed three people in DuPont, Washington. This is just one of several fatal events caused by derailments and excessive speeds. U.S. Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, urges railroads and transit agencies to take action.
The government has already set deadlines for rail companies to comply with new safety requirements. In particular, such companies must install Positive Train Control (PTC) systems by December 31st, 2018.
PTC is an advanced safety system that will automatically stop a train in certain situations. It uses communication and processor based technology.
PTC systems can reliably prevent train-to-train collisions, high-speed derailments, incursions to established work zones, and the movement of a train through a main line switch in the wrong direction.
The original deadline for Positive Train Control implementation was set for December 31st, 2015. But the deadline has since been extended. An additional three years was granted to afford rail companies with more time to come up with the funding and resources to meet the new requirement.
But government officials are starting to get restless. More and more incidents like the one last month are continuing to occur. There’s added stress because there’s still a potential that the new deadline could be extended even further still. Though not yet approved, congress could push the date as far back as the year 2020.
Investigators report that several deaths could have been prevented had the Positive Train Control systems been in place by the original deadline.
Amtrak is on board with speeding up the process. They issued a statement last month saying it was “imperative that the rail industry urgently work together to get PTC activated on the national network as soon as possible - and certainly by the December 2018 federal deadline, if not before."
But according to U.S. News, PTC systems are in place on only 45% of freight carriers and just 24% of passenger rails. 12 of the 41 railroads covered by the new requirement have installed less than 50% of the necessary hardware and components.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) plans to work with the railroads to “help create an increased level of urgency” for meeting the existing timeline expectations. The FRA is assisting with this effort by:
- Providing approximately $925 million in grants to support the development and implementation of Positive Train Control systems;
- Working directly with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to resolve issues related to spectrum use;
- Working directly with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to improve the approvals process for communication towers;
- Dedicating staff to work on PTC implementation, including the establishment of a PTC task force.
Despite the numerous setbacks and delays, the Association of American Railroads says that railroads are making progress. They insist that freight rails are on track to meet the December 2018 deadline.
Secretary Chao and other government officials will continue to push their peers to support sooner-than-later implementation. Railroads and transit agencies must take all possible measures to meet the deadline. Multiple lives could be saved because of PTCs.