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Fatal Train Wreck Renews Calls for Automated Trains

May 15th 2015

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This week’s deadly Amtrak is sparking fresh calls for automated trains on the nation’s rails, even as industry groups press for an extension of this year’s deadline to implement the technology.

Railroads have until December to install “positive train control” under a law passed in the aftermath of 2008 commuter rail crash in California. But just six weeks before Tuesday’s wreck, which killed eight people, a GOP-backed measure pushing the deadline to the end of 2020 cleared a key Senate panel.

After Tuesday’s crash, Democrats wasted little time criticizing Republicans for the effort to delay the automated train mandate. "The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install Positive Train Control technology as soon as possible,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), who sponsored the original legislation containing the 2015 mandate, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

“We need to ensure that railroads are held accountable and are working quickly to adopt this life-saving technology,” she added. “That is why I oppose efforts to give railroads an unconditional five-year waiver from the PTC requirements in the 2008 Feinstein-Boxer law."

The Association of American Railroads, which has lobbied for the PTC extension, contends they’ve devoted massive amounts of money and resources to install the technology on more than 60,000 miles of track. But the industry group is calling on Congress for more time.

"PTC is an unprecedented technical and operational challenge,” the group, which represents freight rail companies, says on its website. "Despite railroads' best efforts, various technical and non-technical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sponsored the extension measure, which passed the Senate Commerce Committee in late March.  He is showing no signs of backing away from his position that the deadline is unrealistic for some parts of the country and should be extended.

"We’ve heard several times from DOT and GAO and others that PTC faces significant implementation hurdles to meeting the end of the year deadline," Blunt said in a statement provided to The Hill. "We think PTC is a good thing that will increase safety, and we are working diligently in a bipartisan way on the committee to make this sure this happens in the most prudent way.”

Blunt said his "thoughts and prayers” were with victims and said Congress would examine the investigation’s finding.

"One of the key aspects we’ll be wanting to take a good look at as we address rail legislation is what happened with the accident, why it happened, and what we need to do to see that it doesn’t happen again," he said. 

Blunt's office added that Amtrak officials have said that they are on track to meet the 2015 deadline in the Northeast Corridor, which is home to both Tuesday's crash and its most popular routes.

The installation is said to be easier in the Northeast because Amtrak tracks there are already operating on a signal-basis, compared to the rest of the country where trains rely on radio communications and cell towers for navigation.

Investigators, however, have said the automated train navigation system could have prevented Tuesday’s crash, which came after the train reached speeds in excess of 100 mph, roughly double the allowed limit. 

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said in a Thursday interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that PTC technology would be preferable to a requiring second engineer in the locomotive cab.

“That is a system that’s designed to protect against human error,” Sumwalt continued. “If the error occurs, than the positive train control will kick in and control the speed of the train.”

Republicans moved Thursday to blunt the Democratic efforts to link the Amtrak crash the effort to delay the automated train mandate. They also sought to beat back criticism of separate vote Wednesday in the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation to cut Amtrak’s funding by about $200 million.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) lashed back against those assertions Thursday, calling it "stupid" to suggest the Amtrak crash was linked to funding.

“Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?” Boehner interjected after a reporter began asking him about transportation funding cuts.

“Adequate funds were there,” he said, adding that no money has been cut from rail-safety programs.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded late Thursday, issuing a statement deriding Boehner's comments as "patently false."

Experts have made clear that Positive Train Control could have prevented the tragedy in Philadelphia," he said. "It is simply a fact that insufficient funding for Amtrak has delayed the installation of PTC, and to deny a connection between the accident and underfunding Amtrak is to deny reality.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile noted that Republicans, in Wednesday's subcommittee mark-up, blocked a Democratic amendment to boost funding for the automated Positive Train Control system.

"Our [Rep. Rosa] DeLauro [D-Conn.] amendment to fund the Positive Train Control, which some have said could have prevented what happened night before last, that was — the DeLauro amendment would have funded Positive Train Control at the president's budget level, $825 million," she said. "That was voted down."

Pelosi vowed to fight the push to extend the deadline in light of the Amtrak crash.

"There are some in the Congress who were saying, ‘oh, we've got to push that date five years farther into the future,’" she said. "We have to resist that. We must try to get the Positive Train Control."

Keith Laing writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.

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