New Technology Could Have Averted Los Angeles Train Crash

In five years, new train control systems could prevent collisions.

Sept. 16, 2008— -- A coast-to-coast monitoring system that would have prevented last week's train collision that killed 26 commuters in California could be available in five years, the Federal Railroad Administration said Monday.

High on the National Transportation Safety Board's wish list, a "positive train control" system would monitor trains' locations and speeds and stop them from colliding if engineers miss signals or other mistakes transpire.

Although multiple products fall under the "positive train control" umbrella, many systems use GPS technology and digital communications to enforce speed restrictions and monitor movement.

If Los Angeles' Metrolink and the area's freight railroads had installed such a system, Friday's accident could have been averted, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Boardman told reporters in a Monday teleconference.

Since the early 1970s, the safety board has been calling on the railroad administration to require railroads to install cab signals and automatic train control on main lines that accommodate both freight and passenger trains.

The national safety board investigates transportation accidents and issues recommendations, while the railroad administration disseminates and enforces rail safety regulations.

In the past three decades, as the safety board has investigated cases in which human error led to fatal accidents, it has stepped up its advocacy of systems that compensate for human mistakes and include collision avoidance.

In 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration established positive train control performance standards for the railroads and is now testing positive train control systems along 2,600 miles of track in nine projects in 16 states, Boardman said.

In the Northeast, high-speed Amtrak trains running along 240 miles of track in parts of Maryland and between New Haven and Boston already use the technology.

"We strongly support the PTC," Boardman said at Monday's teleconference, referring to positive train control.

"We could do this as quickly as five years, maybe even quicker than that if everything comes together right," he said.

Although the federal government and the railroads have made progress, some safety experts say the industry still needs to do more.

"I will applaud them in the area of moving toward creating the establishment of performance-based standards," Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told Monday. "But that's still not a requirement for the installation."

As the regulating body for the railroads, the railroad administration has the ability to say that positive train control technology is something that needs to be implemented. And, Rosenker said, he thinks it is something that does need to be mandated.

A bill before Congress that pushes railroads to adopt the technology, for example, is a step in the right direction, he said. The Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2007 would require railroads to implement positive control systems by 2014.

"We're talking about a system which you finally have to decide to implement," Rosenker said. "Once you've said you're going to do it, then the process begins."

Despite pressure from the safety board, the railroad administration said it is moving as fast as it can.

"What's frustrating is that this isn't something you can just pronounce and move forward," Boardman said.

"It's not really a simple goal here. ... This has been a long and tortuous road for [the railroads], along with us and the NTSB -- those of us who want to have this happen faster," he said during the teleconference.

Implementing positive train control technology nationwide is an elaborate and expensive process, Boardman emphasized.

Technical obstacles include fine-tuning algorithms that determine braking distances for trains of different sizes. And one of the major challenges is creating a standardized system that could operate across all of the nation's railroads.

One of the test projects is in Alaska but, Boardman said, the system is easier to implement there because the state's railroads are isolated from those in the lower 48 states.

The railroads and industry groups say they are eyeing the technology but do not think it is ripe enough for implementation.

"Right now, it's still under development," Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, told Monday. "And if you have a technology under development you really have to make sure the bugs are out of it."

Echoing Boardman's concerns regarding the need for a uniform system and better braking algorithms, White said, "This is not off-the-shelf technology and needs thorough testing."

Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said the operator had looked at several possible positive train control systems but agreed that the technology is not yet ready.

"Currently, there does not exist the technology that is the accepted national standard and one that would work across the multiple tracks that [Metrolink travels]," he said, adding that, from his perspective, the Federal Railroad Administration would have to adopt a technical standard that could be applied across the entire country.

In addition to the technical obstacles, the industry is also wary of the high price it would have to pay if implementation mandates are approved.

A November 2007 report published by the Federal Railroad Administration said that implementation costs for 100,000 miles of track would come with a $2.3 billion price tag that would have to be picked up by the railroads.

Still, safety experts say the price will come down as the technology is implemented.

"This kind of technology is very sophisticated, it is very expensive, but it won't get any cheaper if you wait 10 years," the NTSB's Rosenker said.