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Amtrak Train Derailment Highlights Delays Installing Safety Controls


Let's look more closely now at some technology that it's said might have prevented last week's Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia. The train, it's said, was going too fast. That has raised questions about a safety system called Positive Train Control. The biggest question is why it's taking so long to get on track. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Positive Train Control keeps trains from going too fast. It overrides the engineer and slows the train to the speed limit or stops it at a red signal if the engineer fails to do so. But very few passengers and freight trains are equipped with it, even though Congress mandated in 2008 that Positive Train Control, or PTC, be on every train across the country by the end of this year. The problem - for starters, railroad consultant Charlie Banks says the industry had to build the complex system from scratch.

CHARLIE BANKS: There is no off-the-shelf technology. You can't just go to RadioShack and buy the stuff that has to go into play.

SCHAPER: PTC uses GPS technology and wireless signaling and data communication systems along with complex computer software.

ED HAMBERGER: Positive Train Control is a system of subsystems.

SCHAPER: Ed Hamberger is president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.

HAMBERGER: By that I mean you have to have communications. You have to have locomotives outfitted.

SCHAPER: Hamberger says the railroads couldn't just develop their own PTC systems. They have to be completely interoperable.

HAMBERGER: A locomotive belonging to railroad one operating on track owned by railroad two communicating through a wayside detector owned by railroad three all have to be able to talk back and forth.

SCHAPER: And then there's the wayside antennas for those systems to communicate.

HAMBERGER: We have to install 32,000 antennas along 60,000 miles of right-of-way.

SCHAPER: There was a cumbersome environmental and historic preservation review process for those thousands of antennas that actually ground to a halt until the FCC streamlined it a year ago. Getting enough radio spectrum was costly and time-consuming, too. The railroads will have already spent more than $6 billion on Positive Train Control by the end of this year, and they still won't be even close to fully implementing it.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE QUIGLEY: Here's what took place.

SCHAPER: Chicago Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley admits bureaucratic red tape and Congress are partly to blame.

QUIGLEY: We require this without fully understanding it, without fully assisting those that are going to be involved, without thinking that this is an unfunded mandate, in particular our commuter railroads would never be able to meet these deadlines.

SCHAPER: With Americans taking close to 500 million trips on commuter rail last year, Quigley says funding Positive Train Control is critical to improving passenger safety, but efforts to boost funding in Congress have stalled. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.