March 6, 2017 9:50 AM, EST

New GPS Technology Will Help Keep Freight Trains From Crashing. Why is it Taking So Long to Arrive?

Miles Davis/Flickr

Nine years ago, Union Pacific Railroad supervisor Ricky Durrant was called to a ghastly scene in Southern California.

A Metrolink commuter train had run head-on into a freight train, killing 25 people. The UP train had just come out of tunnel. “Our guys said, ‘We saw a flash of white and said, Ahh, sh--” and hit the brakes, two seconds before impact.

Federal investigators concluded the Metrolink engineer had been texting on his cell phone and failed to see a red track light.

The Chatsworth crash sent shock waves through the industry. A month later, Congress passed a law requiring major passenger and freight railroads to install a computer-based crash avoidance system that will take over control of trains and bring them to an emergency stop if the engineer makes an error that could cause a crash.

The system, based on global positioning technology, tracks where trains are, constantly feeding the computers in the locomotive cab with information about how fast the train should be going and what is happening on the tracks ahead.

Nearly a decade later, amid recriminations, that mandate has not yet been met.

Federal officials set an initial 2015 deadline for full rollout of the new navigation system, called Positive Train Control, or commonly PTC. However, industry representatives persuaded officials to extend the deadline to 2018, with the provision that it might be extended again – to 2020.

Critics say the railroads are taking too long and federal officials are letting them get away with it. Railroads counter that PTC is hardly the “plug and play” technology that some critics want to believe. The system is both costly and complicated to design and install, they said.

Durrant, a 46-year UP veteran, now finds himself at the center of UP’s modernization efforts.

As general director of PTC implementation, he heads an Omaha-based team that is teaching 9,800 engineers from Roseville, California, to Chicago to use the new system.

Durrant has a midwestern twang and a laid-back air, but said he was put on the PTC team for a reason. “I will work my way through barriers even if I have to walk through people,” he said.

UP said it has spent more than $2 billion on PTC since the mandate was issued, and ultimately will invest $3 billion. That includes installing signal stations along 20,000 miles of tracks, wiring computers into 5,600 locomotive cabs, setting up communications offices and training 40,000 employees.

The safety effects could be notable in Northern California. UP, a freight giant with a major railyard in Roseville, runs 10,000 freight trains a year through the Sacramento region, many of them sharing tracks with Amtrak, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin service passengers trains.

Its freight trains run through downtown Sacramento as well as rural areas designated high-risk for derailment, including the Dunsmuir site of an infamous chemical spill in 1991, the Feather River Canyon and Donner Pass.

In November, the Federal Railroad Administration warned railroads publicly they need to step up the pace to meet the 2018 deadline. Recent FRA progress reports suggest that UP is among the railroads that are lagging.

Durrant and other UP officials said that’s not really the case. FRA’s way of presenting the data doesn’t fully capture UP’s progress, they said, because it counts only fully completed tasks.

The FRA database shows that only 111 locomotives of Union Pacific’s 5,656 locomotives are equipped with the new system. UP’s Durrant counters that 3,610 locomotives in effect are PTC-equipped, minus the “black box” crash recorder, which got held up because of a supplier-related problem that has since been resolved. Once those get installed in the coming months, the federal data will reflect that, UP said. Last week, in the Roseville yard, teams of electricians wired PTC circuitry into locomotive cabs.

And while the federal reports say Union Pacific does not have PTC in operation on any of its tracks, that also is not the case, the railroad says. The first PTC-equipped locomotives are running on 12% of UP’s tracks, much of that in California, including in the Sacramento area, in “demonstration” or testing mode. That progress will be reflected once the FRA approves the operations safety plan that UP has submitted to the feds, UP said.

Durrant said UP intends to meet the 2018 deadline. That means adding solar panels to power the wayside signals being installed in some rural sections of tracks that are not electrified, and teaching PTC the proper braking levels for smaller, lighter trains. “Right now, our plan is to be done by the end of next year,” he said.

BNSF, the other major freight rail hauler in the West, similarly reports it expects to make the 2018 deadline, as does Amtrak, which operates the Capitol Corridor passenger trains through Sacramento. That includes an unusual amount of interaction among freight and passenger railroads, all of which must design PTC systems that can communicate with each other so each can share tracks.

Visiting the Roseville diesel locomotive yard last month, Durrant described the effort as more than just a numbers game. It’s also culture change, he said. Engineers as a breed are tradition-bound and take pride in handling their machines their way.

But they have generally embraced the idea that they will now have a computer as copilot, even though it will be looking over their shoulder and ready to take train control out of their hands.

“We’ve had very little push back because they can see where this can be a good thing,” he said.

Durrant, an eighth-generation railroader who has worked as a switchman, surveyor, fireman, engineer and train master, calls PTC “the biggest safety change of a generation.”

“I love it,” he said. “As an engineer, it’s like a Garmin [GPS system] on steroids. It’s giving me information I never had before, allowing me to know what I need my train to be doing” miles before it has to be done.

Normally, engineers can see little more than a mile or two ahead — if weather and terrain allow that much. In contrast, the PTC screen shows them what’s happening in detail five miles ahead, where the track switches are, where the curves are, whether signals ahead are red or green and how fast or slow they need to have their train going at every point.

If the engineer heads too quickly into a turn or fails to stop soon enough for a red signal, the PTC monitor in the locomotive cab will flash a warning and give the engineer a 60-second countdown “to get his train under control,” Durrant said. If the engineer fails to do that, PTC will take over and stop the train.

PTC is not a panacea, however. It can’t tell if a track ahead is broken. It also can’t stop a train from hitting a car crossing the tracks or stop trains when a pedestrian walks onto the tracks. Nor can it do anything about a train malfunction, such as the broken axle that caused an oil train to explode in Casselton, North Dakota, in 2013.

PTC would not have stopped a fiery oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, last summer — caused by broken bolts — that forced evacuation of residents within a quarter mile of the tracks. (That crash helped persuade the Benicia, California, City Council to say no last year to a Valero Refinery plan to run oil trains daily through Northern California, including downtown Sacramento.)

PTC also would not have prevented a freight train carrying cans of tomato products from derailing south of Elk Grove, California, last month, sending 22 cars into a flooded field next to the Cosumnes River. That incident appears to have been caused by a slumping track on waterlogged ground underneath the train.

The PTC technology should, however, prevent trains from crashing into each other, like they did in Chatsworth, as well as derailing because of excessive speed.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded PTC would have prevented a 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured more than 200. In that incident, the engineer was distracted and allowed his train to go into a curve twice as fast as it should have.

PTC also likely would have averted an incident on the Capitol Corridor line in December near Davis, California, where a passenger train apparently went through a track switch at a high a speed, causing the train to jolt violently, injuring five people.

Metrolink, whose 2008 crash helped prompt the federal PTC mandate, is among the earliest adopters nationally. Officials report they have run trains 70,000 miles with PTC since 2015, and say there have been a handful of times PTC stopped a train because engineers were not slowing the trains appropriately. Those instances led to further training for engineers, Metrolink officials said.

Los Angeles attorney Ronald Goldman, whose firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman represented victims in the Metrolink crash as well as others, said he fears the federal government will let railroads delay full implementation a second time, leading to more lives lost from crashes that should have been prevented.

“My [sense] is that the current delay will result in further delay, and each and every member of Congress and the administrative bodies who vote for it will have blood on their hands,” he said.

National Transportation Safety Board officials, who said they have been calling for a PTC-like system for 45 years, this year urged railroads not to apply to federal officials for an extension to 2020.

“Safety delayed is safety denied, and every day without these lifesaving advances holds the possibility of another accident like the ones in Philadelphia and Chatsworth,” the NTSB said on its website.

For its part, the Association of American Railroads, which serves as the voice for the industry, will only say railroads “are on track” to have the system installed by 2018, but officials there declined to say if that means the system will be tested and fully operating by that date.

At Union Pacific, Durrant said his rail company sees the federal mandate as merely a step among many toward improved safety. UP officials are studying whether “cruise control” can be integrated into PTC systems, allowing the train to automatically adjust its speed as it travels.

“We’re in the baby step of the whole product,” he said. “Where we go with it, nobody knows yet.”

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