Since the Hoboken derailment, how is rail safety in the US?
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Image Credit: FRA

Image Credit: FRA

North American railroads have a lot to do ahead of a 2018 positive train control deadline

The Federal Railroad Administration reports that while freight and passenger carriers have slightly increased the percentage of positive train control (PTC) safety technology on their networks, “uneven progress” is still the norm.

The technology has gained new salience in recent years as a result of several train wrecks that could have been mitigated, or perhaps prevented, had the equipment been available. The most recent of these occurred in New Jersey when a commuter rail train plowed into a terminal in September, killing a pedestrian and injuring dozens of riders.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not released its full report yet, but what has been been made public so far suggests that it was due to operator error caused by the New Jersey Transit driver suffering from undiagnosed sleep apnea. Him blacking out at the controls, if taken together with reports that the train’s previously problematic brakes were repaired ahead of the crash, would mean positive train control (PTC) could have slowed the train down once the system picked up the engine was going twice the speed limit. (If the brakes themselves were not working properly, though, PTC could have done very little.)

Since the accident, the railway has set aside $72 million to install PTC. Cost – expected to hit $10.6 billion nationwide by 2018 – has delayed adoption. So has securing necessary spectrum. But another big issue going forward is that despite the FRA mandate, railroads are largely left to their own devices to build the system, which could have compatibility and cyber security problems unless the technology is properly secured.

As PTC expert Jeff Young, a former railway worker himself, has written, “We’re developing a new safety system from scratch that needs to seamlessly serve a massive transportation system,” and that means “railroads are working on sophisticated encryption keys that will ensure that the communications between railroads, as well as sensitive data, are secure.”

And, as the railways themselves have retorted, “The reality is that this revolutionary technology is not-off-the shelf, it had to be developed from scratch and isn’t just about plugging in or turning on components.” This said, the technology and training are all there and have been implemented by other US railways.

Image Credit: Hartong, Goel & Wijeskera / dl.ifip.org

Image Credit: Hartong, Goel & Wijeskera (2007) / dl.ifip.org

Even Canadian railways operating in the US have to meet these requirements, and the two main ones here, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, are ahead of most other US railways. But between them, they expect to spend $878 million to put PTC on the necessary lines.

In contrast, of the three major commuter railroads that pass through Hoboken Terminal, NJ Transit, PATH, and Metro North, only PATH has made significant progress by equipping 90% of its locomotives with the technology.

Some US railways have made improved, though. SEPTA in the Philadelphia-Camden metro area, Virginia Railway Express, and the MBTA of Greater Boston are even further along than PATH in the Northeastern United States. And railways in the western United States, such as BNSF and the South California Regional Rail Authority, tend to be more advanced than their East Coast counterparts.

The US national carrier, Amtrak, however, is still years away from full implementation even at the regional level. And other freight carriers, like CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern, are slowly rolling out PTC but still have a lot of ground to cover: literally.

The mandate for PTC installation in the US was established in 2008, but the original deadline of 2015 came and went as the railroads demanded more time, until the end of 2018.

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