The railroad industry, despite a rash of deadly train crashes, is working hard to push back the deadline for installing technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions until at least 2020. If lobbyists for the industry are successful in Congress, half a century will have passed since accident investigators first called for such safety measures. Under a law enacted in 2008, the systems called “positive train control” (PTC) are supposed to be up and running by Dec. 31, 2015. But, according to reports, only a few of the railroads are expected to meet that deadline. The rest of the industry says, despite spending billions of dollars on the systems, they face logistical and technical hurdles and need more time. Four senators who have strong industry ties recently introduced a bill to extend the deadline for another five to seven years.
If the railroad companies are successful in delaying the PTCs, it will show how a powerful industry can stall regulations it doesn’t like. They can do this even after the regulations are enacted into law. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage in the past decade that officials say could have been prevented had the safety system been in place. The NTSB first recommended advanced train control systems in 1970. Safety, labor and passenger advocates want the deadline to be met, saying that a blanket, industry-wide pass for five more years is wrong. NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said that “for every day that it is delayed, the threat of another accident remains.”
It was reported that railroads have invested heavily in making their case to Congress. The industry spent nearly $47 million last year lobbying the federal government, according to the political money-tracking website OpenSecrets.org. Interestingly, the industry’s 329 registered lobbyists include former Senators Trent Lott, (R-Miss.), and John Breaux, (D-La.), and a former Governor of Mississippi, the out-spoken Haley Barbour. There are also dozens of former House and Senate aides who are lobbyists for the industry. None of this should come as a big surprise to folks who closely follow congressional actions or inactions.
The safety system uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train position and speed and stop them from colliding, derailing because of excessive speed, entering track where maintenance is being done or going the wrong way because of a switching mistake. The system is aimed at preventing human error, which is said to be responsible for about 40 percent of train accidents. Such a system would be “a game changer” for safety, Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), stated during a recent Senate hearing. A dramatic example of the type of accident PTC is designed to prevent occurred in July in Spain when a train traveling twice the speed limit derailed going around a curve, killing 79 people and injuring dozens more.
The NTSB put a newer version of the technology on its “most wanted” list of safety improvements when the list was created in 1990. The government has been funding demonstration projects for decades. After several failed attempts, Congress was prompted to require positive train control by one of the nation’s worst train accidents. On Sept. 12, 2008, a Metrolink commuter train struck a freight train head-on near Los Angeles, killing 25 and injuring more than 100. Investigators said the Metrolink train’s engineer was distracted by text messages, allowing the train to run through a red signal. This was exactly the type of accident the system is designed to prevent. The law gave railroads seven years and three months to install the technology.
Sources: Joan Lowy, Law360.com, Associated Press and the Claims Journal
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