Railroads across the nation, including the California lines Caltrain and the Altamont Corridor Express, are asking for a two-year extension to test new safety system protocols and and train their engineers.
(TNS) — A new system designed to make train travel safer after a string of crashes is being delayed again as railroads across the country — including the San Francisco Bay Area’s Caltrain — ask for extensions of up to two years.
“I think the majority of commuter and passenger railroads, and even some freights, will ask for an extension,” said Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure at Congress’ nonpartisan watchdog, the Government Accountability Office. Despite widespread support for positive train control — the automated brakes that would override human error and potentially save lives — smaller agencies are struggling to buy and set up the technology.
“That kicks the can down the road a bit,” Fleming said.
Among those commuter lines is Caltrain, which runs along the San Francisco Peninsula. For months it has hovered on a federal watch list of railroads that were at risk of missing the Dec. 31 deadline and getting hit with fines of up to $28,000 a day. Caltrain had installed 98 percent of the positive train control hardware by the end of October, but officials plan to request a two-year extension so they can test it and train the engineers.
The San Joaquin Valley’s Altamont Corridor Express is also on the watch list. Yet after months of jostling, spokesman Chris Kay said the rail line put equipment in place last week and will test it by the end of the year.
ACE sped up the process by doing early trial runs on a partial system, using antennas that were recalled on the East Coast because they couldn’t withstand heavy rain and snow. It has since swapped those parts for the correct antennas, Kay said.
“Each railroad has its own story,” Fleming said. “For some the challenge was money. Others had a limited pool of expertise ... and needed to hire people to make this happen.”
On top of that, she said, only a few vendors and suppliers make the software and do the testing.
Congress set the timeline for all freight and passenger trains to incorporate positive train control after years of catastrophic accidents, in which trains overshot platforms, collided with posts or other vehicles, or hurtled off the track, sending passengers to their deaths. The mandate became more urgent last year, when an Amtrak Cascades train plunged from an overpass near Tacoma, Wash., killing three people, injuring many others and crushing cars on Interstate 5.
But many railroads have struggled to build the intricate network of GPS monitors, wireless radio towers, track-side detectors and computers to automatically slow trains down when they approach curves or trundle into stations.
“Being a small but mighty rail line, we kind of get pushed to the back with these projects,” Kay said, explaining why ACE has scrambled to catch up.
Two big obstacles stood in the way, he said. First, only a few companies make this technology, and the competition to get it is stiff. Because ACE has only 13 passenger locomotives, it fell to the back of the line. Second, positive train control requires intense coordination. ACE runs on tracks owned by Union Pacific, which had to install the system before ACE could outfit its trains separately.
Still, Kay said, there’s an advantage to being small: “We can install this equipment and get all the testing done quickly.”
Caltrain’s situation is even more complicated. The agency has folded positive train control into a huge modernization project that includes electrifying the rail cars. So officials have to test the new automated brakes at a time when workers are on the tracks, digging potholes and putting up wires for the new electric system. They expect to have positive train control fully operating along the Peninsula corridor by the end of next year.
Some safety advocates are tentatively optimistic. Others are impatient.
“We’ve been pressing for some form of positive train control for well over 40 years,” said Chris O’Neil, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. “And they’ve rolled it back, rolled it back, rolled it back. And now we’re on the brink of X number of railroads getting extensions, and one more deadline.”
Members of the safety board started rallying for positive train control in 1969, when two Penn Central commuter trains crashed head-on near Darien, Conn., killing four people and injuring 43. But Congress was slow to react, even as technology improved and other deadly collisions showed the need to implement it.
In 2008, 25 people died when a Union Pacific freight train collided with a Metrolink commuter train in Chatsworth (Los Angeles County), jolting the nation. That year federal lawmakers enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act to require positive train control by 2015, a date they later pushed back.
In the meantime, the country’s railways saw dozens more accidents with a common theme: An engineer, distracted or fatigued, misinterpreted a signal or paused to look at a cell phone. Legislators grappled with whether to enforce strict engineering requirements or go easy on agencies that lacked the money or manpower to build a complex control system.
Officials at the Federal Railroad Administration set a hard line with the December deadline — then extended it to 2020 for agencies that qualify. Robert Hall, director of railroad pipeline and hazardous materials investigations for the NTSB, said he hopes this will be the last postponement.
Kay applauded the new train control system, which will speed up travel and allow trains to run more frequently, while improving safety.
But he warned that positive train control is not “an end-all, be-all safety feature.” It won’t help if someone runs across the track, for example, and wouldn’t have prevented a 2016 mudslide in Sunol that derailed two ACE train cars and sent nine people to the hospital.
Yet safety officials say it probably would have headed off last year’s deadly derailment in Washington. Amtrak officials said that train had positive train control, but the technology was not yet operating.
©2018 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.