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Spurred by Metrolink crash, rails move closer to installing automatic brakes

January 12, 2010 |  2:26 pm
Federal railroad officials today unveiled regulations for equipping the nation’s freight and passenger trains with automated braking systems required by Congress after the deadly 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth.

“We believe this final rule, as mandated by Congress, is a giant step toward ensuring the safety and reliability of our freight, commuter and intercity passenger rail routes,” said Joseph Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The rules will regulate the design and installation of positive train control technology that must be installed by freight and passenger railroads by December 2015.

Safety experts have said that such a system could have prevented the Chatsworth crash, which killed 25 and injured 135 on Sept. 12, 2008.

The accident, one of the worst in California history, occurred when a Metrolink engineer who was text-messaging on his cellphone failed to stop at a red signal and collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train, according to federal investigators. Metrolink officials have vowed to install positive train control by 2012, three years ahead of the federal deadline.

Under study since the mid-1980s, the systems send and receive a continuous stream of data transmitted by wireless signals about the location, speed and direction of trains. The technology relies on digital radio links, global positioning systems and track-side computers that aid dispatchers and rail crews.

If an engineer fails to stop at a red signal, exceeds a speed limit or is on the wrong track, positive train control is designed to automatically stop the train — both trains if on a collision course — and alert dispatchers to the problem.

FRA officials said tens of thousands of positive train control devices would be installed nationally along 69,000 miles of track and aboard 30,000 engines. They estimated that the systems would cost about $5.5 billion to install and $820 million annually to maintain and repair.

Because the technology might be expensive for smaller railroads, FRA officials said that Congress has made available about $50 million in seed money. Also, passenger and freight railroads that use the same tracks, such as those operating in the Los Angeles area, may be able to share the cost of the technology.

FRA officials said the new rules require railroads to submit their plans for installing positive train control to the federal government by April 16.

The National Transportation Safety Board made the first recommendation for positive train control more than 30 years ago. In 1990, the NTSB added the technology to its list of 10 most wanted safety improvements.

In the last 10 years, the agency has investigated 52 serious rail accidents, including four transit accidents that probably would have been prevented with the installation of a positive train control system. The NTSB had fatality and injury data for 29 of the 52 accidents. In those accidents, 37 people were killed and 595 were injured.

In August 1999, the federal Railroad Safety Advisory Committee issued a report stating that out of a sample of 6,400 train accidents of all types, 2,659 could have been prevented had some form of positive train control been implemented.

-- Dan Weikel

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