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New York crash could add pressure on railroads to adopt new safety technology

By Tom Curry and Erin McClam, NBC News

The deadly crash of a New York commuter train that hurtled into a steep curve at 82 mph could make it more difficult for railroads to fight a federal deadline to install technology designed in part to avert high-speed derailments.

The system, known as positive train control, uses computer and satellite tracking to minimize human error. It is supposed to be in place for most of the country’s passenger and freight rail network by the end of 2015. But a government report this summer found that most of the railroads are not on pace to finish in time, and parts of the industry have argued for an extension to 2018.

Congress ordered installation of the system for most of the country’s passenger and freight network after two deadly train crashes in 2008, including one in California that killed 25 people.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, examined 11 freight and commuter railroads and found that most do not expect to meet the deadline two years from now. Besides the cost — an estimated $8 billion for freight railroads and $2 billion for already cash-strapped commuter railroads — the industry has cited concerns about the complexity of positive train control and the time needed to test it.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that it was too early to say for sure whether the crash in New York, which killed four people on Sunday, was caused by human error or mechanical failure. But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that “this incident, if anything, heightens the importance of additional safety measures like that one.”

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“I’d be very loath to be more flexible or grant more time,” he told reporters. “Additional delay certainly is not in the interest of rail safety.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., stressed that it was too early to tell whether positive train control might have averted the New York crash. But he noted that “there’s often resistance among the various industries to do these safety things,” and added that the NTSB played an important role as a “walled-off” agency that can make recommendations.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which controls the railroad involved in the New York crash, just last month approved $210 million to set up the system. The project is in its design phase, and an MTA spokesman, Salvatore Arena, said that the agency is “fully committed to implementation of positive train control.”

Preliminary analysis by the NTSB found that the train, at 82 mph, was going too fast not just for the curve, which is notoriously sharp, but for the stretch of track before the curve, where the speed limit is 70. The train that flew off the tracks in New York did not have positive train control installed.

Positive train control is aimed at preventing human error, the cause of about 40 percent of train accidents. It relies on sensors inside the locomotive and uses satellite positioning to track a train’s movement.

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The computer can warn a train’s crew if the train is going too fast. It can stop trains from colliding with each other, from switching onto the wrong track or from going the wrong way.

It can also prevent high-speed derailment by automatically applying the brakes when a train is going too fast.

“It will absolutely save lives,” Steven Ditmeyer, a railroad safety expert and former official at the Federal Railroad Administration, told NBC News. “Crew members, passengers, and maybe people along the wayside as well.”

Metrolink, the commuter rail system involved in the California crash, said this summer that it expects to be fully certified by the middle of next year.

Amtrak said Monday that many sections of its Northeast Corridor, the heavily traveled network of tracks between Washington and Boston, have used positive train control since 2000, allowing trains to move safely at up to 150 mph. It said that it “fully expects” to meet the 2015 deadline.

But most commuter railroads, the GAO said, face the challenge of “overall lack of federal funding available to make investments.” Most are nonprofit operations run on passenger fares and public money, and the weak economy has eaten into the revenue that the commuter railroads traditionally use to invest for the future, the GAO said.

The wreckage of a Metro-North commuter train that derailed in the Bronx on Sunday, killing four people. NTSB via AFP - Getty Images

Kathryn Waters, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association, which advocates for rail and other forms of public transit, told the Senate in June that the estimated cost of implementation has already risen far beyond the initial estimate of $2 billion.

She also pointed out that railroads already have repair backlogs, and said that commuter railroads are being forced to choose between “performing critical system safety maintenance projects” and installing the computer system.

Adding a layer of complication, the Federal Communications Commission has to approve construction of antennas that would be part of the system. Republican House members in August urged the FCC to hurry up.

In testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee, Waters said that Congress had only approved $50 million of the $250 million it promised for the system when the law was passed in 2008.

A broader debate has been going on in Washington over funding for mass transit.

“The case we’re making to Congress is that there are greater investment needs all across the country,” Brian Tynan, director of government relations for the association, told NBC News.

“There are investment needs in rail, in state of good repair of systems, investment needs for our bus systems,” he said. “There are investment needs to expand service to communities that don’t have adequate service — all across the board.”

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The line in the Sunday crash, Metro-North, is the busiest commuter railroad in the United States, with 83 million riders a year. It was the first fatal crash since Metro-North started rolling in 1982.

Indeed, data across the country point to an improving safety record.

The four passenger deaths in New York were the first in the country this year from a rail crash, and federal regulators reported last year that train accidents fell 43 percent from 2003 to 2012.

At the same time, ridership is growing — by 42 percent on the commuter rails since 1990 — and the country’s rail network is busier than ever moving oil and gas because of a domestic energy boom.

“Rail safety is darn good in America overall,” Schumer told reports. “Things are safer today than they were even five years ago. But it can always be better.”

Polly DeFrank and Jeff Rossen of NBC News contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.

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