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Railroads won't meet safety technology installation deadline, report reveals

Only 39 percent of the country’s largest railroads will have their trains equipped with required safety technology, and only 34 percent of the employees who need to be trained to use the new equipment will be. What is going wrong? 

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    Emergency personnel work the scene of a deadly train wreck in Philadelphia, May 12, 2015. Only a handful of railroads are close to meeting a deadline this year to install safety technology that can prevent many crashes, including derailments due to excessive speed like the deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May, according to a government report released Friday.
    Joseph Kaczmarek/AP/File
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Most freight railroads and passenger trains will not meet their December 31 deadline to install technology that could prevent them from going over speed limits and  avoid accidents, the Federal Railroad Administration said in a report to Congress on Friday.

Congress had set the December deadline for rail companies to install Positive Train Control (PTC), a GPS-based technology that can prevent train collisions, over-speed derailments, and even unauthorized incursion into work areas. But according to the report given to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, only 39 percent of the country’s largest railroad companies will have their trains equipped with the technology by the end of the year, and only 34 percent of the employees who need to be trained to use the equipment will be. The report also revealed that only 29 percent of commuter railroads will have the technology fully installed by the end of 2015. The delays may have been caused by the cost and complexity of installing such a safety system, observers say.

“PTC is expensive, and many railroads were late getting started. Freight railroads often host commuter railroad operations on their tracks, and they also frequently use the tracks of their competitors. Developing PTC systems that can be used by multiple railroads has added a layer of complexity to the effort,” reported Joan Lowy for the Associated Press.

“Many railroads also ran into unanticipated difficulties acquiring the radio spectrum necessary to make the technology work, and getting government permission to erect thousands of antennas along tracks,” she added.

Nevertheless, the technology itself is not new, and federal regulators have been calling for its installation for years. Despite the reasons for the delays, many say that the technology’s installation is imperative. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, over 300 lives could have been saved and over 7,000 injuries avoided over the past 46 years if the PTC had been installed.

Congress began pushing for the new technology after several high profile trail collisions took place, including one in California in 2008 that resulted in the death of 25 people. Most recently, investigators determined that the crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia in May could have been avoided if the PTC had been in place.  Eight people died during that accident and around 200 were injured.

Despite the December deadline, lawmakers had already anticipated that the installation of the PTC would be delayed. Recently, as part of a 6-year highway bill passed in the Senate, funds were allocated to the Department of Transportation to help it install the PTC technology. The Senate bill also envisions that the deadline will be pushed back to 2018.

Some lawmakers, however, were unhappy about the provision.

“It should be done immediately. There shouldn’t be an extension,” Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told the New York Times. “Given the high number of accidents, and given the fact that P.T.C. is really effective, they should stick with 2015.”

Amtrak, meanwhile, has confirmed that it will be able to meet the original December 31 deadline for installation on all of its trains on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

The railroad administration, however, said that it doesn't expect the technology to be fully installed on all commuter lines until 2020. 

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