National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman told freight railroads Wednesday that the implementation of postiive train control, a crash-avoidance technology mandate, has taken far too long.
Her comments came a day after the Association of American Railroads said meeting the end of 2015 deadline for the roughly $12 billion mandate isn’t possible. The railroads are lobbying Congress to extend the deadline, pointing to the enormity of the feat and that much of the needed technology isn’t yet available or proven. NTSB hearing witnesses estimated that although some of the railroads, such as BNSF Railway, are on track to meet the 2015 deadline, it would take roughly another five years before all PTC systems are online.
Hersman noted that NTSB can’t force the freight railroads to implement the costly mandate, but the agency would continue to investigate accidents the initiative could have prevented. Hersman, who has forcefully advocated PTC, fears the mandate for the wireless signaling system have been watered down since Congress called for crash-avoidance technology through the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
She pointed to how only automated prevention of head-on collisions, not rear collisions, is under the PTC scope. Plus, the newer version of the mandate would only automate train halts when the train is moving more than 20 miles per hour, meaning two trains could still collide at a collective force of up to 40 miles hour without PTC kicking in.
“We are frustrated with the slow pace of implementing something that we know will save lives,” said Hersman, who is widely seen as a potential successor of Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Although NTSB first advocated for PTC-like technology in the 1970s, it took the crash of a Metrolink train and a Union Pacific train, killing 25 people, near Los Angeles in September 2008 to spur Congress to order the industry to implement the technology. The Metrolink engineer was distracted because he was texting, illustrating how PTC could reduce the biggest cause of railroad accidents: human error, Hersman said.
Reinforcing the railroads’ plea for more time, Gerhard Thelen, who represented AAR at the hearing, said the many untested systems that make up PTC could initially reduce capacity and “shift traffic to less safer modes of transportation.”
“Doing what is right and safe must steer this process, not a subjective deadline,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, in a written statement.
Freight railroads have also seen PTC implementation costs rise, and the Obama administration’s loosening of some mandate requirements have not fully offset the increased costs. The PTC mandate also reduces the industry’s ability to improve its network, although the North American railroads plans still plan to spend about $13 billion on capital projects this year.
Even though the railroads have pledged to implement PTC, some executives, including CSX CEO, Chairman and President Michael Ward, have said the money directed toward PTC could be better used to improve safety by upgrading track and adding siding extensions. PTC would prevents about 3 percent of the accidents that occur on freight lines, said Thelen, vice president of operations planning at Norfolk Southern Railway.
The PTC hearing come a day after the agency held a fact-finding hearing on the crash of two Union Pacific trains in late June that killed three people. One of the trains ignored two warnings urging it to slow down and another ordering the locomotive to stop. She said PTC could have prevented or mitigated 22 accidents that killed 57 people since 2004, the year she took over the agency.
The Federal Railroad Administration said carriers face fines of up to $25,000 if they don't meet the PTC deadline. But Mark Hartong, FRA’s senior scientific technical adviser, warned fines in some cases could be counterproductive because some carriers, such as short line railroads, are already financially stretched by the mandate.