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Congress mandated positive train control systems, which are designed to prevent collisions, speed derailments and other accidents, in the aftermath of a 2008 train collision in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured 201 others, said Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, during congressional testimony in February.
Positive control systems — of which there are several different types in use in the United States — can automatically control train speeds and movements if a train operator fails to take appropriate action for the conditions at hand, according to the Federal Railroad Administration website.
Since enactment of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the NTSB has investigated 22 accidents that resulted in 23 deaths, more than 314 injuries and over $126 million in property damage, which could have been prevented by the technology, Mr. Sumwalt said in testimony before the House subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.
Under the original legislation, Class I railroad main lines handling poisonous inhalation hazard materials and any railroad main lines with regularly scheduled intercity and commuter rail passenger service were required to fully implement PTC systems by 2015. Class I railroads are those with annual operating revenues of at least $447.6 million.
Late that year, Congress extended the deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, with the possibility of an extension to Dec. 31, 2020, if a railroad completed certain statutory requirements, according to the FRA.
However, Nikki Burgess, Seattle-based senior regulatory specialist with Labelmaster, a hazardous materials transporter unit of American Labelmark Co., said political pressure stemming from recent commuter train accidents may lead the FRA to reject any railroad’s efforts to extend the compliance deadline.
Freight railroads are largely prepared for the Dec. 31 deadline to introduce positive train control, the remote-controlled safety technology designed to stop train collisions and other accidents, but there are concerns about commuter railroads’ readiness.