On September 12, 2008, one of the worst-ever U.S. rail disasters occurred in Chatsworth, Calif. A head-on collision occurred between a Union Pacific freight train and a Metro-link commuter train. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the engineer of the Metro-link commuter train had run through a red signal while texting on his cell phone. As a result, 25 people were killed and 135 others injured in the collision.
In late 2008, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act. This Act mandated rail companies to install a technology known as Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that automatically applies the brakes on trains that are about to collide or derail. This mandate had a projected cost of 13 billion dollars, which the rail companies would have to pay in updating 70,000 miles of track which carried passengers or extremely hazardous material by the end of 2015. The PTC technology has been advocated by the NTSB since the early 1990s to prevent accidents resulting in human error, which is the main cause of rail crashes.
The NTSB has identified 21 rail crashes since 2001 that would have been averted by the PTC technology. These 21 crashes caused 53 deaths and approximately 1,000 injuries. This is obviously an area of great concern. But the rail industry and its allies have continued to argue that the project is unaffordable and collectively they have put up stiff opposition. The rail industry has argued for delaying the installation of PTC for three years, exempting 14,000 miles of train tracks and advocating a much cheaper and less effective system. The rail industry has spent over 80 million dollars in lobbying efforts from 2009 to 2011 on this issue and others.
The PTC system includes GPS and wireless communication technology with a central control center. The central control center monitors trains and stops them if they are entering the wrong track or are about to run a red light. The Transportation Department’s Federal Rail Administration concedes that PTC increases safety, but says PTC would save only four to five lives a year and that, it says, is not nearly enough to justify the cost. PTC advocates contend that the agency’s analysis ignores business benefits that the technology would provide, not only preventing accidents, but coordinating train traffic more efficiently and cutting shipping times.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is the Chair of the House Transportation Committee. His committee is working on the authorization bill for this project. Rep. Mica has voiced support for extending the PTC deadline by three years and allowing rail companies to use a non-technological safety system. Another critic of the PTC is Rep. Bill Schuster (R-Pa.) who chairs the Railroad Sub-committee. He is on record as criticizing the PTC technology from the time it was adopted. Rep. Schuster has even advocated extending the deadline beyond 2015 and reducing the number of tracks covered.
In conclusion, if the PTC technology had been in place in 2008, the Chatsworth disaster would not have occurred and countless others lives would have been saved. Hopefully, there will be enough support for the PTC technology – and for full implementation of the Act – to overcome the efforts of the lobbying forces against it.
If you would like more information on this subject, contact Mike Crow, a lawyer in our firm, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Mike.Crow@beasleyallen.com.
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