Stop Stalling on Railroad Safety-Millions of Americans at Risk Each Day

Photo: Timothy J. Cavanagh
Photo: Timothy J. Cavanagh

By Timothy J. Cavanagh/ founding partner of Cavanagh Law Group in Chicago, Illinois

It is time for our nation to get serious about railroad safety and stop putting millions of Americans at unnecessary risk each day. Positive Train Control, or PTC technology, are safety systems proven to prevent train crashes and derailments. PTC was supposed to have been in place on January 1, 2016 protecting millions of railroad passengers, including more than 300,000 commuters who ride Metra each day. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Today our nation’s railroad riders are still one human error away from a catastrophic accident that could easily be prevented with this lifesaving technology. Congress extended the deadline to install the technology after intense pressure from the railroad industry. The railroads now have three more years with the option of a five year extension. Three years is bad enough but five years is unconscionable. Congress must say NO. Now more than ever, we need this fail-safe technology. As a nation, we need to do everything we can to make it happen ASAP. No more excuses, no more extended delays.

Congress mandated that PTC be installed on our nation’s rail lines in 2008 and gave the railroads seven years to meet a December 31, 2015 deadline for installation. Shamefully, most of the nation’s railroads including Metra, failed to meet the deadline. Congress could have taken a tough line and imposed stiff fines on railroads for missing the deadline and provided financial help to some railroad lines that had legitimate financial constraints. Instead, Congress gave into essentially blackmail from the railroad industry which threatened to shut down the nation’s rail system if the deadline was not extended.

The National Transportation Safety Board says PTC would have prevented train accidents that killed 300 people and injured more than 7000 in the United States. It would have prevented numerous Metra accidents including two where two people were killed and more than 136 injured. Each year installation is delayed, the risk to rail passengers needlessly increases.

PTC is a high tech system that uses G-P-S, radios, computers, and antennas to track the speed and location of trains. It alerts an operator of any danger ahead and can override the system should an engineer fail to act. It has the ability to slow down or stop a train. Yes, it is expensive and complicated to install but the railroads were given seven years to save, plan and get it done. Under the new agreement, railroads would have an extra three years to work on the automated train conversion. They will also have the option of requesting an extra two years to work on the installation if they submit plans for doing the work by Dec. 31, 2018. The requests would have to be approved by the Department of Transportation on a case-by-case basis. This is unconscionable and will result in a “blanket five-year” extension for railroads to install technology that can prevent deadly accidents. Congress must hold firm to the three year extension.

Many of the nation’s railroads can easily afford the technology and are stalling. The railroad industry has a long and questionable track record of resisting safety measures. They need to face tough fines and penalties until they comply. Otherwise, they will continue to stall. Congress must force railroads who can afford to pay for the installation to do so promptly. Some like Metra may have legitimate financial issues slowing them down. Our local, state and federal elected officials must help with funding so cash strapped commuter railroads can install PTC as soon as possible. Lack of funding is an issue.

After the horrific Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia last May where eight people were killed and more than 200 injured, then House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) called questions about railroad funding “stupid” but you get what you pay for. The United States has one of the worst safety railroad records in the developed world. Accident fatality rates are twice as high as those in the European Union and countries like South Korea and triple the amount in Australia. For the size of its economy, the U.S. lags far behind many of the world’s most developed countries in spending on rail networks. The low spending levels have led to the poor safety record. While other countries have invested billions in railroad infrastructure, maintenance and technology, we have cutback spending. We spend just $35 per person on railroad infrastructure. Countries like Japan and most of the European nations spend more than $100 per person.

What makes the suggestion that we wait another five years for the PTC technology to be installed especially negligent is that it is not new. In fact, the NTSB has been urging the railroads to install it for the past 20 years. Not only are the delays putting passengers at risk, they also add to the cost. Originally when Metra was on track to meet the deadline, the cost was estimated at $235 million. The cost is now estimated at $300 million to $400 million.

Each death, each injury, and each bit of property destruction that PTC could have been prevented is reason why we have to implement PTC now. Congress must impose tough penalties and fines on those railroads who can pay and are stalling and offer help to those who cannot afford it so they can install PTC as soon as possible. What we cannot afford is to add five years of unnecessary risk along our nation’s railroad lines.

@ 2016 WLS-AM News

This article is one of series of commentaries from individuals, guests and organizations about what’s important to the Chicago area.

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