The fatal passenger-train crash in New York last weekend revived interest in automatic braking systems, but railroads are struggling after spending billions of dollars to meet a congressional deadline for a national program to prevent more deaths.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates major crashes, has recommended so-called "positive train control" for more than 20 years to automatically halt trains that are speeding or disobeying signals.
The urgency revived Dec. 1 with Metro-North crash that killed four passengers. NTSB investigators say the train was going 82 mph at a curve where the speed limit drops from 70 mph to 30 mph.
NTSB member Earl Weener said the train had a "dead-man switch," a pedal for the engineer's left foot that brakes the train when released, but it's not clear what role the equipment played. No brake problems were found in the investigation's early days, Weener said.
Weener said Tuesday that positive train control could prevent human mistakes by slowing or stopping a train that isn't obeying speed limits, track signals or other operating rules.
"Since this is a derailment involving a high-speed train, it's possible that (positive train control) could have prevented it," Weener said.
Since 2005, the NTSB has investigated 15 train accidents in which 50 people were killed and 942 people were injured. In each case, the board concluded that positive train control would have prevented the accident.
Crashes that prompted the recommendation include:
•A collision of two trains in April 2011 near Red Oak, Iowa, where fatigue was a factor in the deaths of two crew members.
•A crash in May 2008 in Newton, Mass., where a transit-train operator fell asleep briefly and collided with another train.
•A July 2005 collision in Anding, Miss., that killed all four operators where fatigue was a factor.
But railroad industry groups say they are unlikely to meet a 2015 deadline Congress set for having the costly and complex system on all tracks carrying passengers or toxic chemicals that can be inhaled.
The Transportation Department could potentially enforce civil fines for missing the deadline. But commuter railroads are asking for an extension to 2018, and a bipartisan group of senators proposed legislation in July to extend the deadline to 2020, with an option for the Federal Railroad Administration to extend the deadline another two years.
"This tragedy is a heartbreaking reminder of how urgent it is that we install this technology as quickly as possible to better protect the traveling public," said one of the sponsors, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "Some railroads will need more time to safely install these controls, but I plan to keep the pressure on to make sure they're implemented as soon as possible."
Commuter railroads have already spent at least $458 million out of at least $2.75 billion the system will cost, according to the American Public Transportation Association. But Congress has provided only $50 million so far, and publicly funded commuter systems are asking Congress to provide 80% of their costs for their 4,000 locomotives and 8,500 miles of track.
"You can't snap your fingers and make the technology appear instantly," said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association.
The commuter railroads are also asking the Federal Communications Commission to provide free radio spectrum for the communications, but they haven't received a response, Miller said.
Freight railroads say they've privately spent $3 billion through June toward $10 billion estimated for the entire system. More than 380 locomotives have been fully equipped and 6,700 partially equipped, out of 19,000, according to the Association of American Railroads.
"Absolutely, it is a priority," said freight spokeswoman Holly Arthur. "However, given the various technological and regulatory hurdles that still must be overcome, there will not be a fully interoperable national (positive train control) system in place by then."
In general terms, positive train control monitors a train's location by satellite, Wi-Fi and digital radio signals to ensure it is obeying speed limits and signals. The goal is to automatically stop or slow a train to prevent crashes, derailments and work-zone mishaps.
Part of the difficulty in installing the system is that passenger, commuter and freight trains must all work together under the same system across 60,000 miles of track.
"There are a number of challenges," Miller said. "Some of the equipment is still under development and has never been successfully tested in a commuter-rail environment."
Another hurdle is that each of 20,000 new cell towers required to communicate with trains must be approved by the FCC. The agency plans to consult on a government-to-government basis with Indian tribes along rail linesabout the towers, ranging from 25 to 65 feet tall at 2-mile intervals along the tracks.
A Government Accountability Office report in August found that only one of four major freight railroads studied expects to meet the 2015 deadline for adopting the system. But while Amtrak has the system in the Northeast, most of the seven commuter railroads reviewed won't meet the deadline, according to GAO.
The auditors suggested that forcing railroads to meet the deadline without adequate testing could boost risks for reliability and cost. Extending the deadline would help the Federal Railroad Administration better manage the safety plans, the GAO said.
"Different companies have said they will be operating by the 2015 deadline," said Arthur of the freight association. "There may be pockets across the country" such as Amtrak in the Northeast and Metrolink in California, she said.