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Most railroads won’t meet safety deadlines, report says

Emergency personnel worked at the scene of a deadly train wreck in Philadelphia on May 12, when an Amtrak train bound for New York crashed and killed eight aboard.
Emergency personnel worked at the scene of a deadly train wreck in Philadelphia on May 12, when an Amtrak train bound for New York crashed and killed eight aboard.Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press/FILE

WASHINGTON — The majority of freight railroads and passenger trains will not be able to meet a year-end deadline to install technology that prevents trains from exceeding speed limits and helps avoid collisions, the Federal Railroad Administration said Friday in a report to Congress.

Congress set a deadline of Dec. 31 for freight and commuter rail companies to install the technology, which is known as positive train control, after a California passenger train derailed in 2008, killing 25 people.

But the report, which was provided to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, said few railroads were on schedule to meet the deadline.

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The largest railroads will have only 39 percent of their trains fitted with the technology by the end of the year, the report said. In addition, just 34 percent of the employees who need to be trained on the equipment will be ready by Dec. 31.

The report also said that just 29 percent of commuter railroads were expected to complete installation of the safety equipment by the end of 2015.

Full implementation of the technology for all commuter lines is projected by 2020, five years after the deadline, according to the railroad administration.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, more than 300 lives and nearly 7,000 injuries could have been avoided in railroad accidents over the past 46 years if the technology had been installed.

The NTSB said the May 12 Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured 200 also could have been prevented had the positive train control technology been installed. Amtrak said it would be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to have the safety technology installed on its trains on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston.

But some other railroads have not even provided complete information on their plans to meet the deadline, according to the rail administration.

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The findings in the report are not surprising. Railroad companies and many commuter rail authorities had already told Congress they would be unable to install the technology by the end of the year. The railroads said several factors had led to the delay in installing the necessary technology, including cost and a limited number of vendors that sell the equipment.

A recently passed Senate bill would push the deadline to 2018. The bill adds money to the Department of Transportation’s budget to help the industry with installation of positive train control.

A memo from the Senate Commerce Committee said that the year-end deadline was not feasible and that some “freight and commuter railroads may be forced to cease some or all service at the deadline as a result of unknown liability and penalty risk.”

Technology to prevent train accidents is not new, and federal regulators for decades have called for railroads to install the safety systems.

The railroad administration said it would begin enforcing the rules outlined by Congress if railroads have not installed the positive train control technology by the end of the year, including issuing fines and penalties.

“The rail system is not as safe as it could be without full implementation of PTC,” the agency said.