Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle
[Editor: (apologies for the commercial content…the video that follows the commercial is well worth the wait.) The following San Francisco Chronicle article on Positive Train Control is incredibly important. Until California is fully covered by a state-of-the-art collision-avoidance system, Valero should not be issued a use permit for crude by rail. Significant quote from the article: “In the four-plus decades since the federal safety board began urging that the technology be installed, 139 crashes that could have been prevented with collision-avoidance systems have occurred on U.S. rail lines, resulting in 288 deaths and 6,500 injuries, according to internal records of the safety agency examined by Hearst Newspapers.” – RS]
System can prevent train accidents, rail industry slow to adopt
New technology prevents accidents, but rail industry is dragging its feetBill Lambrecht, July 27, 2014
Faced with a huge increase in hazardous oil-carrying trains, California is urging quicker implementation of technology that would prevent train accidents caused by human error. But after pushing back against the idea for nearly half a century, the rail industry is far from ready to adopt the safety measure.
The technology monitors and controls train movements with a digital communications network that links locomotives with control centers. It’s designed to prevent collisions by automatically slowing or stopping errant trains that are going too fast, miss stop signals, enter zones with maintenance workers on the track or encounter other dangers.
Yet 45 years after the National Transportation Safety Board first recommended such a system, the technology, known as positive train control or PTC, operates only on a tiny slice of America’s rail network – including a segment of the Metrolink commuter rail line in Southern California, which has become a leader in adopting the technology after a crash near Chatsworth (Los Angeles County) killed 25 people and injured 102 in 2008. It is also coming soon to Caltrain in the South Bay and on the Peninsula.
In the four-plus decades since the federal safety board began urging that the technology be installed, 139 crashes that could have been prevented with collision-avoidance systems have occurred on U.S. rail lines, resulting in 288 deaths and 6,500 injuries, according to internal records of the safety agency examined by Hearst Newspapers.
During that time, the safety agency issued 75 PTC-related recommendations – formal advice to the industry and its federal regulator that has grown increasingly strident.
But the Hearst investigation found that even after early successes with the technology, its development has met continuous resistance from railroads unwilling to sacrifice profits for the safety that the system would provide.
The Federal Railroad Administration, charged with regulating the U.S. rail system, has frequently defied the safety board’s recommendations to install PTC. At times, it has joined with industry to push back against implementation.
Finally, shortly after the Chatsworth accident, in which one of the engineers was distracted while texting, Congress passed legislation mandating the installation of the control system on key portions of the nation’s rail network by the end of 2015.
Caltrain and Metrolink are among the few commuter lines in the country that say they expect to meet that deadline. But rising concern about trains hauling crude in the North American oil boom has put California at odds with the federal government about the pace of PTC and railroad safety in general.
Since last year, 10 oil trains have derailed in the U.S. and Canada, including the catastrophic wreck a year ago in Quebec that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Mégantic.
The amount of oil arriving into California by rail jumped last year by 506 percent to 6.3 million barrels, a state interagency working group on rail safety reported last month.
The report predicted that by 2016, the amount of crude oil coming to California by train could increase by 150 million barrels if California’s five major refineries operate at capacity.
California recently learned that a Burlington Northern Santa Fe crude-carrying train is making weekly runs through the Feather River Canyon, into downtown Sacramento and south to Stockton, before ending up at the Tesoro refinery outside Martinez.
State officials are raising an array of concerns with the federal government about the sluggishness of implementation of the safety measures.
Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration are proposing delays in PTC deadlines, but the report last month from nine California agencies recommended just the opposite: accelerating the installation.
Heading off disaster
“We’re trying to do something before an accident happens instead of looking at a catastrophe and figure out how it could have been prevented,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “A train with better technology to prevent it colliding with another train is safer than a train that doesn’t have that technology.”
Metrolink began running the collision-avoidance technology earlier this year on the line that runs from Los Angeles to Riverside.
“Our biggest challenge has been the fact that we’re out front as much as we are, so we’re the ones experiencing the bugs,” said Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten.
“The deadline was seven years out,” he added. “It wasn’t as if it were an unreasonable deadline.”
Caltrain is installing its $231 million safety system along the San Francisco-to-Gilroy line.
The Government Accountability Office and rail safety advocates have questioned whether the Federal Railroad Administration is prepared for the inspections and approvals for PTC. Caltrain echoes those concerns.
“I think they will be challenged from a resource point of view to get this done, and it seems likely that that is going to be a constraint on all of us,” said Karen Antion, a consultant who is directing Caltrain’s transition to the system.
The collision-avoidance technology is designed to minimize the number of train disasters caused by human error, the cause of roughly 40 percent of derailments.
In the 1980s, Burlington Northern, plagued by a series of fatal accidents, was the first to act on a recommendation that the National Transportation Safety Board had issued nearly two decades before, calling on railroads to adopt an avoidance system. The railroad’s technology plotted the speed and positions of trains within 30 feet. If trains got too close and an engineer didn’t slow after warnings flashed on a locomotive computer screen, the system took over.
It became more than an experiment: For five years, Burlington Northern’s system operated on 17 locomotives on 300 miles of tracks in Minnesota. There were no accidents.
“All of the components worked as expected,” said Steven Ditmeyer, who was Burlington Northern’s research director at the time. “We had acceptance by train crews, dispatchers and maintenance people. There was no fear of the system and people could see its benefits.”
The federal safety board soon turned up the heat, advising the Federal Railroad Administration in the early 1990s to establish a “firm timetable” for installing train control along America’s tracks.
But the opposite occurred. The 1990s were a time of upheaval in the industry, with mergers set in motion by deregulation. Amid the reorganizing and subsequent cost-cutting, railroads lost interest in train control.
In 1993, the Association of American Railroads prepared a 91-page study that laid out a case for benefits of the technology beyond avoiding wrecks: savings in fuel and labor costs, better traffic control, a means to monitor the condition of locomotives and “a better-rested and safer workforce.”
But rather than use the study to rally its members, the leaders of the railroad trade group ordered the study destroyed. The railroad association argued in 1995 that the new technology “must be justified on the basis of safety benefits only.”
The Federal Railroad Administration went along with what the industry wanted. Ditmeyer headed the agency’s Office of Research and Development after being deeply involved with the Burlington Northern project. In 1996, he testified at a congressional hearing that technical issues with the system still needed to be addressed.
In a recent interview, Ditmeyer recalled that testimony as “one of the things I regret most in my life. … I was forced to say it was not ready to implement.”
After 9/11, the railroads’ focus shifted to protecting against terrorist attacks, and collision-avoidance technology was pushed even further down the priority list.
Finally, after the Chatsworth crash, Congress passed a measure requiring implementation of PTC and President George W. Bush signed it into law. But the delays were far from over.
In 2010, the Association of American Railroads filed suit challenging federal rules for installing the new technology, arguing that “while the costs of PTC are tremendous, the benefits are relatively few.” Four years later, the suit drags on.
Michael Rush, associate general counsel of the Association of American Railroads, said his members are committed to the technology, but that key components are still in a developmental stage.
“It is a work in progress. We’re trying to do something that’s not been done before,” he said.
In the run-up to the 2015 deadline, Americans don’t have the opportunity to measure progress in installing the technology. The federal railroad agency rejected a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to post railroads’ updates online.
“To publish this information would likely mislead and confuse the public,” agency administrator Joseph Szabo said in a letter, adding that it would “waste valuable agency resources.”
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the federal safety board, said in an interview that the railroad agency’s “response to this was, frankly, appalling.”
Drop in accidents
The railroad agency defends its safety record, pointing to a 50 percent drop in rail accidents over the past decade. The agency also touts a voluntary agreement that went into effect July 1 under which oil trains reduce speed in urban areas and take pains to identify routes with the fewest risks.
The Federal Railroad Administration favors a plan to deal with railroads’ plans to install the safety system incrementally, not setting any overall deadline. Testifying at a Senate hearing this spring, Szabo said the open-ended plan would set milestones for individual railroads and “achieve the benefit of PTC as much as possible as soon as possible.”
Other proposals in Congress would delay the technology beyond 2015.
“Pure trouble” is how Grady Cothen, the agency’s former associate administrator for safety, sums up the agency’s open-ended deadline proposal. “There is a place for FRA discretion, but there has to be a framework,” he said.
Sumwalt said he and other federal safety board members “were feeling good” after Congress ordered the collision-avoidance technology six years ago.
“And now we’re finding that it’s going to be delayed even further,” he said. “It’s frustrating to see accidents continue to happen that we know PTC would have prevented.”
This story has been corrected since it appeared in print editions.Bill Lambrecht is a reporter in the Hearst Newspapers Washington bureau.