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On Sept. 13, a Metrolink commuter train collided with a Union Pacific Railroad train in Chatsworth, Calif., causing 25 fatalities and 138 injuries. In the days that followed, reports surfaced that the Metrolink engineer failed to stop at a red signal and had been sending text messages on his cell phone just minutes before the accident occurred.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) still is investigating the accident, but Metrolink stakeholders and congressional leaders are taking measures they hope will prevent similar collisions, while Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and rail industry officials are addressing rail safety policies and procedures.
On Sept. 16, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that would require all major U.S. railroads to install positive train control (PTC) systems, which NTSB officials believe could have prevented the Chatsworth accident.
The Rail Collision Prevention Act (S. 3493) would require freight and commuter railroads to develop plans for PTC systems within one year of the bill’s enactment. The legislation also would: set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2012, for the systems to be in place on rail lines designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as high risk, and those used by major freight and commuter railroads; and set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2014, for installation of PTC on all major rail lines, with priority given to passenger-rail lines or those used to transport hazardous materials.
And on Oct. 1, Congress passed a rail safety reauthorization bill that includes a mandate to install PTC on lines used for passenger trains and to move hazardous materials no later than 2015. The bill now will go before President Bush for final approval.
However, PTC is not yet ready to be implemented on the nation’s more than 100,000 track miles, said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Boardman during a press conference held Sept. 15. The various PTC systems are not interoperable, have to be adapted to stop trains of different size and weight, and are very costly, he said. In addition, railroads must secure radio frequencies for the systems.
PTC currently is being tested through nine projects under way in 16 states. Railroads are working — and will continue to work — with the FRA to test and, eventually, implement the technology, but it will take time, Association of American Railroads officials said.
“[PTC] is not an ‘off-the-shelf’ system or software that can be plugged in and implemented overnight,” according to a statement posted on the association’s Web site after the crash. “The PTC technologies take into account many aspects of train operations, including braking distances; each train’s weight and length; the conditions, grades and curvatures of the tracks; interoperability of electronic and communications networks across different rail lines; and other sophisticated variables and factors that all must be computed and accounted for to make PTC a valuable safety feature.”
The Metrolink/UP accident also has raised questions about engineers’ cell phone usage while on duty. On Oct. 1, the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed the Metrolink engineer involved in the Chatsworth collision had sent a cell phone text message 22 seconds before his commuter train crashed into the UP train. The announcement prompted FRA officals to issue an emergency order prohibiting the use of personal electronic devices by all railroad employees while operating trains.
“Railroad operating employees cannot focus on critical safety functions while engaging in phone conversations, texting or any other form of unessential electronic communication, often in violation of railroad operating rules,” said Boardman in a statement.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) — one of five county transportation agencies that provide operating funds to Metrolink — is calling on Metrolink to bump up safety measures by staffing locomotive cabs with two engineers, implementing “automatic train stop” technology on trains already equipped to handle the systems, and installing video cameras and digital video recorders or equivalent technology to monitor engineers and other staff inside locomotive cabs.
The authority will allocate $5 million to install PTC systems on Metrolink trains operating in Los Angeles County, and plans to work with Metrolink’s other funding partners to identify and secure funds to implement a collision-avoidance system in their own regions.
In addition, the authority is calling on Metrolink to establish a “Commuter Rail Safety Peer Review Panel” to evaluate the agency’s existing safety plans and operating procedures, as well as review such plans for freight lines. Metrolink’s CEO would be responsible for developing a comprehensive commuter- and freight-rail master plan that would evaluate and recommend additional safety technology and infrastructure upgrades.