Category Archives: Positive Train Control

Capitol Corridor passenger trains outfitted with new safety braking system

Repost from the Sacramento Bee
[Editor: note that Capitol Corridor is upgraded, but other Union Pacific and AMTRAK systems are not yet complete.  The railroads continue to drag their heels.  – R.S.]

Capitol Corridor passenger trains just got the biggest safety upgrade in a century

By Tony Bizjak, December 26, 2018 03:00 AM
Apologies for the ads that precede this video…

Two years ago an Amtrak Capitol Corridor passenger train outside Sacramento jolted so violently that passengers thought it would derail.

The engineer had mistakenly sped at double the limit through a track crossover. Coffees, laptops and some bodies went flying. Two people were slightly injured. Ultimately, two train operators were disciplined. But the human-error incident left several passengers saying they wondered if rail officials were really focused on safety.

Now, corridor train officials say, an incident like that is unlikely to happen again.

As of this fall, all trains on the 170-mile Capitol Corridor system have been equipped with a computer system that will take control of the train from the engineer if the engineer fails to heed speed or other warnings.

The system, called Positive Train Control (PTC), gives the engineer an auditory countdown to act if danger looms. If the train is headed toward a curve at too high a speed, for instance, the system will warn the engineer. If the engineer fails to take remedial action in a timely fashion, the computer takes control and stops the train.

Amtrak, which operates the Capitol Corridor line, is one of 41 railroads that have been mandated by the federal government to install the system.

Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory, speaking recently to Congress, called PTC “the most fundamental change in rail safety technology since the introduction of Automatic Train Control in the 1920s.”

Davis City Councilman Lucas Frerichs, the Capitol Corridor board chairman, said the new system is a major step and statement about the importance of passenger safety.

“PTC is the gold standard of rail safety, and its implementation on the Capitol Corridor fleet that carried a record 1.7 million passengers last year is a huge milestone,” Frerichs said.

The implementation period since October, however, has been suffering from multiple technology glitches. Numerous trains have been delayed because of technical difficulties with the PTC system, Capitol Corridor chief David Kutrosky said.

He said crews have typically been able to correct the problems in a few minutes in most cases, and the number of issues is on the decline.

“With any new technology, it just doesn’t work to full specifications on day one,” Kutrosky said. “You need to work through the systems. We knew there would be some delays. The delays are trending downward.”

Kutrosky said the PTC system has not yet had to step in to take over control of a train.

Capitol Corridor is among the first rail lines in the country to have its system fully up and running.

The federal government first mandated the PTC system for major railroads after a Metrolink passenger train engineer became distracted by text messages on his cell phone, causing the train to go through a red signal and crash head-on into a freight train. The 2008 crash killed 25.

Railroads have been slow to install the system, complaining it is complicated and costly. The federal government has repeatedly extended the deadline for railroads to have the system fully up, tested and running. The initial deadline of 2015 was first extended to the end of 2018, but that deadline, too, was extended for some railroads to 2020.

Union Pacific, the largest rail track owner and freight shipper in Northern California, has informed the federal government it will not be finished getting the system tested and fully operational by the end of this month, and is requesting an extension to 2020.

Although the Capitol Corridor train system has finished its PTC installation and testing, Amtrak overall will not meet the Dec. 31 deadline and has requested an extension to 2020.

Critics, including some members of Congress, say the railroads are dragging their heels and the federal government is complicit in letting them get away with it.

Experts say several recent fatal crashes likely would have been avoided if PTC had been fully in place and operating nationally.

In December of 2017, three people were killed and dozens injured when an Amtrak train in Washington sped at twice the speed limit through a turn and derailed onto Interstate 5. In February, an Amtrak train ran head-on into a freight train in South Carolina, killing two and injuring 100.

The system has limitations, rail officials say. While the computers know what speeds to go, as well as whether the train is on the correct track, the system cannot detect whether a person, car or other object is on the tracks ahead.

    AP: Trump administration miscalculated benefit of better train brakes

    Repost from The Associated Press

    APNewsBreak: US miscalculated benefit of better train brakes

    By Matthew Brown, December 20, 2018
    FILE- In this Nov. 8, 2013 file photo, a tanker carrying crude oil burns after derailing in western Alabama outside Aliceville, Ala. The Trump admiinistration vastly understated the potential benefits of installing mmore advanceed brakes on trains that haul explosive fuels when it cancelled a requirement for railroads to begin using the equipment. A government analysis used by the administration to justify the cancellation omitted up to $117 illion in potential reduced damages from using electronic brakes. Department of Transportation officials acknnowledged the error after it was discovered by The Associated Press during a review of federal documents but said it would not have changed their decision. (Bill Castle/ABC 33/40 via AP, File)

    BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s administration miscalculated the potential benefits of putting better brakes on trains that haul explosive fuels when it scrapped an Obama-era rule over cost concerns, The Associated Press has found.

    A government analysis used to justify the cancellation omitted up to $117 million in estimated future damages from train derailments that could be avoided by using electronic brakes. Revelation of the error stoked renewed criticism Thursday from the rule’s supporters, who called the analysis biased.

    Department of Transportation officials acknowledged the mistake after it was discovered by the AP during a review of federal documents. They said a correction will be published to the federal register.

    But transportation spokesman Bobby Fraser said the decision not to require the brakes would stand under a Congressional act that said the costs couldn’t exceed the rule’s benefits.

    “This was an unintentional error,” Fraser. “With the correction, in all scenarios costs still outweigh benefits.”

    Safety advocates, transportation union leaders and Democratic lawmakers oppose the administration’s decision to kill the brake rule, which was included in a package of rail safety measures enacted in 2015 under President Barack Obama following dozens of accidents by trains hauling oil and ethanol in the U.S. and Canada.

    The deadliest happened in Canada in 2013, when an unattended train carrying crude oil rolled down an incline, came off the tracks in the town of Lac-Megantic and exploded into a massive ball of fire, killing 47 people and obliterating much of the Quebec community’s downtown.

    There have been other fiery crashes and fuel spills in Alabama, Oregon, Montana, Virginia, West Virginia, North Dakota, Illinois and elsewhere.

    Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said the administration should reconsider the brake rule in light of its miscalculation.

    “The omission of $117 million from the rule’s anticipated benefits is further proof that the Trump administration is willing to cut corners to put industry profits ahead of the American people’s safety,” said Merkley, a Democrat. He called for “a new cost-benefit analysis that is full and transparent.”

    After the brake rule was enacted, lobbyists for the railroad and oil industries pushed to cancel it, citing the high cost of installing so-called electronic pneumatic brakes and questioning their effectiveness.

    But supporters of the brakes said the issue should be reconsidered given the miscalculation and concerns about other benefits that may have been ignored, including reducing the frequency of runaway trains and severity of train-on-train collisions, said Robert Duff, a senior adviser to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat.

    “This is not theoretical risk. We’ve actually seen these derailments,” Duff said.

    Unlike other systems where brakes are applied sequentially along the length of a train, electronic pneumatic brakes, or ECP, work on all cars simultaneously. That can reduce the distance and time a train needs to stop and cause fewer cars to derail.

    “These ECP brakes are very important for oil trains,” said Steven Ditmeyer, a rail safety expert and former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration. “It makes a great deal of sense: All the brakes get applied immediately, and there would be fewer cars in the pileup.”

    Under Obama, the Transportation Department determined the brakes would cost up to $664 million over 20 years and save between $470 million and $1.1 billion from accidents that would be avoided.

    The Trump administration reduced the range of benefits to between $131 million and $374 million.

    Transportation Department economists said in their analysis that the change was prompted in part by a reduction in oil train traffic in recent years. Even as ethanol shipments on U.S. railroads have continued to grow, reaching about 500,000 carloads annually, crude shipments peaked in 2014 and fell to about 200,000 carloads last year.

    But in making their cost-benefit calculations, government economists left out the most common type of derailments in which spilled and burning fuel causes property damage but no mass casualties, the AP found. Equipping fuel trains with electronic brakes would reduce damages from those derailments by an estimated $48 million to $117 million, according to Department of Transportation estimates that were left out of the administration’s final tally.

    Including the omitted benefits reduces the net cost of the requirement to as low as $63 million under one scenario laid out by the agency. Other scenarios put the net cost at more than $200 million.

    Transportation spokesman Fraser said that would not have changed September’s decision to cancel the electronic brake requirement because of the cost.

    The Association of American Railroads declined comment on the agency’s cost benefit calculations. Spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said the move to rescind the Obama rule was in line with the requirements set forth by Congress, which passed a 2015 measure saying the Department of Transportation must repeal the braking requirement if expected costs exceed benefits.

    The biggest share of oil now moved by rail goes from the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana to the West Coast, where fears of an accident were realized two years ago when 16 tank cars carrying Bakken oil derailed, igniting a fire that burned for 14 hours along the banks of the Columbia River near Mosier, Oregon.

    The accident was caused by track problems. An investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration concluded electronic brakes would have made it less severe.

    John Risch, national legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, said electronic brakes also would have prevented the deaths at Lac-Megantic.

    He added that the omission of benefits from the government’s findings further tilted a study that was otherwise flawed.

    “It flies in the face of earlier, much more comprehensive studies,” Risch said. “We are using a 120-year-old technology with mechanical brakes. They’ve come to the peak of what you can do with them.”

     

      Senators question railroads on oil train braking systems

      Repost from Transportation Today
      [Editor: I challenge Senators Feinstein and Harris (and Attorney General Becerra) to follow the lead of Senators Wyden and Merkley.  These “positive train control” braking systems, or “electronically controlled pneumatic” (ECP) braking systems – were supposed to be in place nationwide long ago, but every time a deadline approached, the railroad lobby won a delay.  Now they have Trump on their side.  Some background in this 2015 CNN report, “Amtrak derailment: Could technology have prevented crash?”.  – R.S.]

      Lawmakers launch railway safety standards inquiry

      BY DOUGLAS CLARK, OCTOBER 19, 2018

      Union Pacific

      Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) are seeking answers from two railway company’s regarding plans to ensure trains carrying hazardous material have updated braking systems.

      To do so, the Oregon senators recently forwarded correspondence to Union Pacific and BNSF in the wake of the Trump Administration’s announcement to roll back an Obama-era rule requiring the installation of electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems by 2021. The legislators noted that the guideline was instituted after multiple oil train crashes across the United States, including one in the Columbia River Gorge.

      “Too often our constituents in the Pacific Northwest have seen trains carrying crude oil crashing within and around their communities,” Wyden and Merkley wrote. “We have seen these trains crash near school buildings, small businesses, and homes, causing extensive damage to communities and putting our environment at risk, including sources of drinking water as well as river habitats that house endangered fish species.”

      In their letter, the lawmakers inquired about how many of the railway companies’ trains carrying crude oil in Oregon and Washington have ECP brakes installed; the percentage of trains carrying crude oil through Oregon and Washington have ECP brakes; and whether the rule rollback impact purchasing of new railcars with ECP brakes.

      The legislators maintain their constituents should be afforded security from potential railway transport dangers.

      “Our constituents, many of whom live, work or go to school in the vicinity of rail lines that carry hazardous materials, need to know that their safety is being protected,” the legislators wrote.