Freight train industry to miss safety deadline

WASHINGTON - Only one-fifth of its track will be equipped with mandatory safety technology to prevent the most catastrophic kinds of collisions and derailments by the deadline set by Congress, the freight railroad industry said Wednesday.

The Association of American Railroads said in a report that about 20 percent of the approximately 60,000 miles of track being equipped with the technology will meet the deadline of Dec. 31, 2015. Previously, the association had estimated 40 percent would meet the deadline.

The association blamed the Federal Communications Commission, saying the FCC is holding up the placement of about 20,000 antennas on track wayside that are necessary to complete installation of the technology, known as positive train control or PTC.

The FCC is requiring railroads ensure that each antenna will not disturb sites of importance to Native Americans. The commission hasn't yet determined how the antennas are to be reviewed, the association said. The majority of the antennas are between 10- and 60-feet tall, and roughly 97 percent are proposed to be located on railroad property.

In January, the FCC proposed an alternative process for 565 federally recognized Native American tribes to review PTC antennas in an effort to speed up approvals.

The safety system uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train position and speed and to stop trains from colliding, derailing because of excessive speed, entering track where maintenance is being done or going the wrong way because of a switching mistake. It's all aimed at preventing human error, which is responsible for about 40 percent of train accidents.

Congress passed a train safety law in 2008 that requires commuter and freight trains to be equipped with PTC. The impetus for the law was a crash in which a commuter train collided head-on with a freight train near Los Angeles, killing 25 and injuring more than 100.

The law gave railroads seven years to comply. The industry's supporters in Congress are now trying to extend the deadline another five to seven years.

The National Transportation Safety Board has urged the adoption of PTC for more than two decades. The 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.

"Everyone in the industry is greatly frustrated at the inability to move forward and do what we need to do to advance PTC installation," said Edward Hamberger, the association's president and CEO. "It's been two steps forward, three steps back for months and we simply don't have the certainty we need to move ahead and get PTC tested, fully functioning, certified and ready to go."

The railroad association sent its report to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is responsible for ensuring railroads install positive train control. Railroad administration officials had no immediate comment on the report.

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