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Industry, lawmakers push back on train safety technology

In Ohio, 36 freight railroads operate using approximately 5,300 miles of track and 5,800 public grade crossings.

An effort is underway in Congress to delay a deadline to install a railroad safety net that could help prevent catastrophic collisions, hazardous waste spills and deadly accidents from speeding.

Under a law enacted in 2008, the system is called positive train control and was supposed to be installed by the end of 2015. The idea is for the system to cover freight and commuter railroads that share lines, and freight trains that haul hazardous materials.

Some railroads could meet the deadline, but others told the Associated Press that despite spending billions on the system, it needs more time.

Positive train control would guard against human error by tracking every train by using a GPS device and providing a bird’s eye view of all trains in operation. Ohio is the fifth leading state in terms of goods transported by rail.

Four senators with industry ties recently introduced a bill to extend the deadline another five to seven years, the AP said. A dramatic example of the type of accident such as system is designed to prevent occurred in July in Spain when a train traveling twice the speed limit derailed going around a curve, killing 79 people and injuring dozens more.

The National Transportation Safety Board has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage over the past decade that officials say could have been prevented had the safety systems been in place, according to the AP.

According to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, 36 freight railroads operate in the state on approximately 5,300 miles of track that have 5,800 public crossings.

PUCO is focused on safety at train crossings and the positive train control system would fall under regulation by the Federal Railroad Administration, said Randall Schumacher, rail division supervisor for the PUCO.

Over the past 12 years, the PUCO has ordered safety upgrades at more than 1,700 crossings throughout the state, with 543 upgrades approved in 2012, including the installation of lights and gates and closings.

There were 71 crashes at Ohio public crossings in 2012, with nine fatalities and 25 injuries. Crashes occurred when motorists ignored warnings and drove around gates, the PUCO said. Statistics show that last year 73 percent of the accidents at crossings occurred where safety gates were present.

The National Transportation Safety Board had urged as far back as 1970 that railroads install technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions, including head-on crashes.

“It absolutely has to be done, and the sooner the better,” Frank Kohler, a former critical care nurse who was a passenger on commuter train that collided with a freight train five years near Los Angeles, told the AP. He awakened an hour and a half after the accident, on the ground with his head split open. He’s unable to work and suffers from a low tolerance for stress, headaches and memory loss.

“I wish (the safety systems) were in place five or six years ago,” Kohler said. “It would have helped me.”

But industry reps say that despite spending billions of dollars on the systems, they face logistical and technical hurdles and need more time.

CSX, a major operator of trains in Ohio, said it has completed wiring and setup on more than 2,200 locomotives to date, and began installing locomotive computers last month.

“The company is making significant progress,” said spokeswoman Carla Groleau. Software development by third parties remains the biggest constraint, she added. “When final software is delivered, we need to do extensive testing in the lab and in the field to ensure the system performs safely and as designed. Because of these delays, we won’t meet the 2015 deadline; but we’ll implement PTC safely as quickly as possible,”    Groleau said.

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