Train Accidents and Speed Controls

October 6, 2015

If you commute by train, you may need to find another way to get to the office next year.

December 31, 2015, is the deadline for railroads to complete upgrades required by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The act requires railroads to install positive train control (PTC) systems that slow or stop trains to avoid derailment and train-to-train collisions. Railroads that fail to complete PTC upgrades this year face daily fines in 2016 if they continue to operate. Unless Congress extends the deadline, some railroads may choose to cease operations to avoid those penalties.

Congress has discussed extending the deadline to 2018, amid opposition from some politicians and safety experts. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey said that, given the horrific derailment of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia in May, delaying the PTC deadline is “a bad idea,” and “shocking and wrong.”

But can the railroads possibly meet the Dec. 31 deadline? Not likely.

Challenges of Implementation

The American Association of Railroads says many obstacles stand in the way of achieving full PTC compliance. The AAR says the technology for PTC didn’t even exist in 2008, and railroads had to create a brand new kind of technology for each of the three PTC components:

  • Onboard systems that monitor a train’s speed and activate the brakes as needed
  • Trackside systems that monitor railroad signals and switches
  • Back office servers that monitor all onboard and trackside information and transmit authorization for trains to move to a certain part of the track.

The number of companies that operate freight and passenger cars, along with the many companies that own sections of railroad track, present challenges in coordinating PTC efforts. The owner of a track would be responsible for installing trackside monitors, but those monitors would need to be compatible with the technology in all trains that travel that track and their corresponding back office servers.

Altogether, PTC requires 500,000 individual pieces of technology and the geo-mapping of 60,000 miles of track. In parts of the United States, where long stretches of track run through undeveloped areas, railroads would need to run electricity to the tracks in order to power trackside monitors. And the AAR says the Federal Communications Commission delayed the installation of 22,000 PTC antennas by a year, due to a historic preservation review. The FCC’s review of new PTC infrastructure looked for violations of tribal land rules, endangered species laws, and historic preservation rules.

Best Case Scenario

It would seem that the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 established unachievable goals – or at least did not account for the work entailed to launch PTC. Even if the deadline is extended to 2018, PTC upgrades are likely to be incomplete.

The AAR predicts that while other facets of PTC could be complete by 2018, it would not function across all railroad track miles until 2020, and training for 95,971 employees would also not be complete until 2020.

Amtrak has installed fully operational PTC in a section of track from New Haven, Conn., to Boston, Mass., and along a few areas of track close to Philadelphia. Safety investigators say that if PTC had been installed where Amtrak 188 derailed, the accident would have been prevented.

It’s clear railroads need to do whatever they can to speed up the implementation of PTC. But it may be years before life-saving PTC technology is fully operational.

If you have any questions about this topic or believe that a railroad accident is responsible for your injuries, the attorneys at Wapner Newman can help. For almost 40 years, we have been the trusted advocates for countless personal injury or medical malpractice victims and their families throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We offer risk-free consultations and work on a contingency basis, which means that we do not require you to pay any fees until we have secured a recovery on your behalf. We encourage you to contact us today by calling 1-800-529-6600 or filling out a free case evaluation form.