America’s railways are in need of major improvement. In just the past few months, there have been four deadly train crashes in the U.S. One technological upgrade, mandated years ago but not yet fully implemented, could make a big difference in safety.
CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.
“Anytime you can keep two trains apart, it’s better for everybody,” Henry Stopplecamp, RTD Denver assistant general manager said. RTD Denver is the first transit agency in the U.S. to integrate Positive Train Control, or PTC, into the construction of a rail line. According to Stopplecamp, PTC almost guarantees that two trains won’t run into each other.
Allen Miller, an RTD Denver senior manager, explained that, “If we recognize that those trains are going to share blocks at any given time, we have the ability through Positive Train Control to either reduce or bring that train to a complete stop before any kind of an event occurs.”
Events like a crash in the U.S. state of South Carolina earlier this month. An Amtrak passenger train traveling on the wrong track slammed into a stationary freight train, killing two people. That accident, and one involving a speeding train in Washington state in December, killing three, are the types of situations PTC, which relies on a combination of GPS, wireless radio signals and onboard computers to track trains, is designed to prevent.
“If that train is not exactly where it’s supposed to be at that given time, the onboard will kick in and actually physically downgrade that train without the operator’s assistance,” Miller said.
A head-on crash between a commuter train and a freight train in California in 2008 first led U.S. lawmakers to order railroads to install PTC. But a 2015 deadline for implementation was pushed back to the end of this year, and that may not be realistic either.
Although PTC is the norm across Europe, China, Japan and even parts of India and Africa, the system is complicated and very expensive.
“If you think of some of these big railroads, when they got thousands of these locomotives, each of these locomotives has to be equipped,” Stopplecamp said.
“To be able to apply PTC to a quarter of a million miles of trackway across the United States, you’re into probably the trillions of dollars,” Miller estimated.
According to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, 24 percent of passenger tracks and 45 percent of freight tracks currently operate PTC. A recent Associated Press study estimated 300 rail-related deaths could have been prevented over a 46-year period had PTC been in effect.
“Yes we lose sleep over this,” said Miller, who added railroads have become much safer over the years and that PTC will only help in that regard. “It will give us what we need for the coming century and that’s what’s important to all of us.”
Stopplecamp agrees. “I think overall it has the potential to really help the industry and public,” he said.
The aim is to make PTC a reality across the United States. But railroads still have some distance to go before they arrive at that goal.