WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board urged Congress Wednesday to stick to a deadline requiring all intercity passenger and commuter rail companies to have technology in place by Dec. 31 that includes an automatic braking system for trains traveling at high speeds. But investigators suspect over 71 percent of the companies won’t make the deadline.
“We don’t expect any of the Class 1 to be in a position to have fully functional implementation of PTC [Positive Train Control] by Dec. 31, 2015,” said Robert Lauby, associate administrator for railroad safety at the Federal Railroad Administration.
Officials from Amtrak, the Transportation Department, and the Federal Communications Commission, as well as NTSB, testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Wednesday. The hearing came in the aftermath of a House hearing last week that yielded few answers about a fatal Amtrak crash last month.
NTSB officials said Positive Train Control system, a technology that slows a train that’s speeding beyond prescribed limits, could have prevented the May 12 tragedy in Philadelphia.
Congress required all intercity passengers and commuter railroads to implement PTC by the end of this year after a train collision in Chatsworth, California killed 25 people back in 2008. Many companies say they have problems meeting the deadline because of insufficient funding and the complexity of the technology.
“While the investigation is still ongoing, the solution is apparent: we need positive train control installed and activated as soon as possible,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., ranking member of the committee.
Some senators were not satisfied with the way that Federal Railroad Administration is overseeing the installation of new technological controls..
“We are a nation that put a man on the moon, we are operating a vehicle remotely on Mars but our railroad has not yet implanted the technology that’ s existing, feasible, practicable and affordable,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “I think FRA has been as much part of the problem as the solution.”
The Senate panel requested that the FRA submit a report about issues delaying PTC implementation to Congress by the end of the month. But the FRA’s Lauby said the agency can’t pinpoint when it will have that completed.
“We are working on that report right now, it’s an internal clearance, we expect to have it done shortly,” said Lauby.
In an update released early Wednesday morning, the NTSB said train operator Brandon Bostian wasn’t using his cellphone at the time of the derailment of a train traveling over 100 miles per hour on a curve. Eight people died in crash and more than 200 were injured.
The question then remains – why was the train going so fast?
“Without question, speed was a factor in this derailment, and human error may have contributed to the excessive speed, underscoring the importance of train control technology and other strategies to address this accident risk,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who heads the Senate committee.
Senators lashed out at the slowness of the government’s investigation of the Amtrak crash.
“It took three weeks for them to figure out whether this conductor was using his phone,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Amtrak Northeast Regional 188 derailed as it entered the Frankford Junction curve in Philadelphia. The train was traveling at 106 miles per hour, more than twice the 50 mph speed limit mandated by federal regulators for that turn.
The FRA issued a safety advisory Tuesday calling on passenger railroads to employ a “second qualified crew member” in the locomotive cab, and to install automatic train controls in all corridor sections where there’s a reduction of 20 mph from the maximum speed allowed.