Tag Archives: Metrolink

Positive Train Control – background, progress, funding

Repost from the Miami Herald

Rail safety technology improvements delayed by cost, complexity

Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, May 14, 2015
Emergency personnel work at the scene of the deadly Amtrak train wreck Wednesday in Philadelphia. Federal investigators are trying to determine why the Amtrak train jumped the tracks in a wreck that killed eight people and injured dozens. Patrick Semansky – AP

Most of the nation’s railroads will not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing collision-avoidance technology that could have prevented Tuesday’s deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

Congress in 2008 required that railroads install positive train control by the end of this year, and although the rail industry has made progress on the $9 billion system, equipping 60,000 miles of track and 22,500 locomotives with the technology has proved to be complicated.

The technology has to work across not only the seven largest freight railroads but also 20 commuter railroads, Amtrak and dozens of smaller carriers. It requires 36,000 wireless devices that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches.

It also must work in densely populated regions where multiple rail lines intersect and are heavy with passenger and freight traffic, such as Chicago, Southern California, New York and New Jersey.

“Each of these systems has to be able to talk to each other,” said Ed Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group.

Even lawmakers who months ago wanted to hold the industry to the 2015 deadline have softened their position in recognition that the system simply won’t be ready.

Hamberger told reporters Thursday that the industry needs another three years just to get the equipment installed, and two more to make sure it works. Of the 60,000 miles of track where the system is required, he said only 8,200 miles would be ready by year’s end.

A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to complete the task. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who wrote the legislation that contained the 2015 deadline, said a five-year blanket extension was not the answer.

“In my view, that is an extremely reckless policy,” she said in a statement Thursday. Feinstein has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline on a case-by-case basis.

The technology was not in place at the site of Tuesday’s derailment, on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the busiest passenger railroad in the country. The National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday that positive train control would have prevented Train 188 from approaching a 50 mph curve at more than 106 mph.

Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was Amtrak’s first fatal accident on the Northeast Corridor since a January 1987 crash that killed 16 people. In that instance, positive train control could have stopped a freight locomotive from running past a stop signal into the path of the Amtrak train.

The NTSB has recommended positive train control for decades. In January, the board included the technology on its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements. It did not endorse giving railroads an extension beyond December.

Amtrak actually may finish its installation of the system on the entire 457-mile passenger rail corridor between Washington and Boston ahead of most railroads.

“We will complete this by the end of the year,” Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman said Thursday at a news conference in Philadelphia.

The rail industry supports the Senate bill that would give the companies a five-year deadline extension, and even some of the industry’s toughest critics in Congress are prepared to give it more time.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, freight hauler BNSF and Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California, are positioned to meet the original deadline.

An August 2008 collision near Chatsworth, Calif., prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring positive train control. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink commuter train ran past a stop signal and into the path of a Union Pacific freight. According to the NTSB accident report, the Metrolink engineer, who was among those killed, was texting just before the crash.

Another fatal crash, on New York’s Metro North commuter railroad in December 2013, renewed calls for positive train control. Four people were killed when a New York-bound train jumped the tracks in the Bronx. The train was traveling 80 mph when it hit a 30 mph curve.

Positive train control is designed to prevent a train from running a red signal or approaching a slow curve too fast. Accident investigators don’t yet know why Train 188 was going more than twice the appropriate speed when it derailed in Northeast Philadelphia, but they do know the accident was preventable.

“The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install positive train control technology as soon as possible,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday.

One thing Congress did not do when it required railroads to install the system was give them any money to do it. When asked Thursday how much the government had contributed to the freight railroads to assist with positive train control, Hamberger, of the Association of American Railroads, replied, “Zero.”

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget includes $825 million to help commuter railroads install the technology. The president’s 2009 economic stimulus provided $64 million to Amtrak for its installation. But that wasn’t enough, the railroad said in a report justifying its 2014 budget request.

Overall, Amtrak has spent $110.7 million since 2008 to install positive train control.

“Additional funding to fully comply with PTC requirements is necessary,” Amtrak said.

Richard Harnish, the president of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, a group that advocates for passenger rail improvements, said in a statement Thursday that positive train control was delayed because Congress gave railroads an unfunded mandate.

“Congress needs to invest in the safety of our transportation system,” he said.

Share...

    ASSOCIATED PRESS on the Oxnard train crash: Life-saving train design is rarely used

    Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald

    Life-saving train design is rarely used

    By Justin Pritchard, Feb 25, 2015 12:37 PM PST                                            
    AP Photo
    In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, file photo, Workers stand near a Metrolink train that hit a truck and then derailed in Oxnard, Calif. Three cars of the Metrolink train tumbled onto their sides, injuring dozens of people in the town 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Engineers have figured how to blunt the deadly force of a train smashing into a truck on the tracks. Yet few U.S. rail systems have adopted the technology, which is believed to have played a significant role in the remarkably low number of serious injuries from Tuesday’s commuter rail crash in California. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the collision between a Southern California commuter train and a truck abandoned on the tracks was this: No one died and only eight people on board were admitted to hospitals.

    Officials with the Metrolink train system credit cars designed to blunt the tremendous force of a head-on collision.

    Accident investigators have not yet said what role “crash energy management” technology played in Tuesday’s wreck. But the fact that so few among the 50 people on board were seriously injured is prompting other commuter train systems to take a renewed look at safety technology that has been around for at least a decade but still is not widely used in the United States.

    A spokesman for Metro-North, the New York City commuter railroad where a fiery collision between an SUV and a train Feb. 3 killed six people, said the California crash will prompt Metro-North “to assess whether the system could be beneficial in enhancing safety.”

    It is not clear whether the technology would have made a difference in the most recent Metro-North crash, in which more than 400 feet of electrified third rail snapped into a dozen sections and speared the train. The Metro-North passenger cars meet federal design standards but do not include crash energy management systems, spokesman Aaron Donovan said in a statement.

    Back in California, Metrolink officials are crediting crash energy management, which was designed and built into three of the four double-decker passenger cars involved in the accident, with the remarkably low number of serious injuries even though the impact at an estimated 55 mph was violent enough to fling several cars onto their sides.

    “Safe to say it would have been much worse without it,” Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said of how the technology performed during the crash in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

    The safety systems can vary in design, but the general idea is to disperse the energy of a crash away from where the passengers sit. Metrolink’s cars have collapsible “crush zones” at the ends of its cars that help absorb the impact, along with shock absorbers, bumpers and couplers.

    It is the same principle at work in the “crumple zones” in newer cars. They are designed to absorb the force of a crash while keeping people inside safe.

    Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. secretary of transportation stood at the site of a horrendous Metrolink crash near downtown Los Angeles and called for the widespread adoption of this kind of train car.

    In response to that 2005 accident in which a train smashed into an SUV in Glendale, killing 11 people, Metrolink bought dozens of new passenger cars equipped with these systems.

    In 2010, the first of those cars rolled into use. By June 2013, the system had 137 of the cars – about two-thirds of its fleet – bought for $263 million from South Korea’s Hyundai Rotem Inc., Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said.

    While federal regulators for years have weighed rules that might require the technology, they have not formally proposed such measures for trains with a top speed of less than 125 mph. Rules are in place for a small subset of trains that can go faster.

    Aside from Metrolink, crash energy management equipment is used by Amtrak, including on its Acela line in the Northeast, and two systems in Texas, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

    One obstacle to more widespread use of the train technology is that it has to be designed into new passenger cars, and railroads that bought cars without it in recent years may not want to invest in new ones so soon. Railroads can’t simply retrofit existing cars.

    “It is not a bolt-on device,” said Martin Schroeder, chief technology officer for the American Public Transportation Association. He has been working with the Federal Railroad Administration as it considers whether to propose rules for the systems.

    The advisory committee on which he sat finished its work in 2010. The Federal Railroad Administration would not comment Wednesday on the status of possible regulations.

    Meanwhile, federal investigators looking into the Southern California wreck focused on the man who drove his pickup truck onto the tracks, then abandoned it as the train approached before dawn. Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, was arrested on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident.

    Ron Bamieh, an attorney for Ramirez, said his client did all he could to try to free the truck, then ran for help. But National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said late Tuesday that the truck was not stuck in the sense that it bottomed out on the tracks. He also noted that its emergency brake was on.

    Associated Press writers Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, New York, and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this story.
    Share...

      SF Chronicle: ‘Positive Train Control’ System can prevent train accidents, rail industry slow to adopt

      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 feet
      Bill Lambrecht, July 27, 2014
      Jake Miille/Special to The Chronicle | A procession of tanker cars transporting Bakken crude oil travels on a railroad line near James (Butte County).

      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.

      Railroad resistance

      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.

      Ten derailments

      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.

      Human factor

      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.”

      Momentum lost

      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.”

      Congress acts

      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.
      Share...