San Francisco Chronicle
Commuter rail lines on track to employ high-tech lifesaver
1 in Bay Area already uses system to avoid derailments — others set for ’18
Just one of the four rail lines that carry Bay Area commuters is outfitted with the high-tech safety equipment that could have prevented the deadly train derailment in Washington state this week.
But the other three are all on track to have the system, known as positive train control, in full operation in 2018 — in time to meet a federal deadline at the end of that year.
Positive train control can automatically slow or stop a train in time to prevent a derailment or a collision with another train, and rail safety officials believe it could have prevented Monday’s derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train, which hurtled off the tracks between Olympia and Tacoma, Wash., killing three passengers and injuring many others.
While the cause of derailment has not
been determined, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said the train was traveling 80 mph heading into a 30 mph zone. Amtrak’s CEO said the rail line was outfitted with positive train control technology but that it was not yet in operation.
Positive train control employs a combination of GPS, trackside detectors, wireless radio towers and computers to monitor train speeds and locations and apply the brakes if a train is speeding into a curve or work zone or getting dangerously close to another train.
Federal authorities ordered railroads to install the safety system after a 2008 Metrolink commuter train plowed into a freight train in Southern California, killing 25 people. The original deadline of 2015 was pushed back to 2018 after railroads complained about the cost and technological complexity of the system. Some railroads may be granted extensions to 2020.
Four Bay Area rail services frequented by commuters and travelers are required to have positive train control by the 2018 deadline. BART and Muni Metro, in its subway service, aren’t subject to the federal mandate but operate under similar automated systems that control speed.
SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, started service between Santa Rosa and San Rafael in late August with positive train control in place, a decision the system’s board of directors made years earlier. The nation’s newest commuter railroad, SMART is also the first to open with positive train control.
Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s executive director, said the system ensures “that a derailment due to speed cannot happen.”
“In our system we have curves where we go 79 mph, we have curves where we have to go much slower,” he said. “PTC prevents you, for any reason — if an engineer is not paying attention, if an engineer has a heart attack, if a criminal takes over the controls — from exceeding the speed. PTC would simply shut you down — and well before you get to that curve.”
Caltrain, the Altamont Corridor Express and Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor have all installed some or all of the equipment required for positive train control and expect to be testing the systems in 2018. Officials of all three rail lines said they expect to meet the deadlines.
Caltrain had all the equipment installed and was in testing in February, when it fired its contractor, Parsons, for failing to meet critical deadlines. The termination, and litigation filed by both sides, caused the project to screech to a stop.
Tasha Bartholomew,a Caltrain spokeswoman, said the agency expects to outline a plan in February to resume testing.
“Our intention is still to meet the deadline,” she said.
Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor, which runs between San Jose and Auburn (Placer County), is part of the national passenger rail system but runs on Union Pacific tracks. David Kutrosky, managing director of the system, said trackside equipment has been installed and is being tested. Equipment in locomotives and control cars is being installed, and a master server that will connect all Amtrak trains is also being installed. Testing will begin late in 2018, he said, but Union Pacific expects to meet the deadline.
The Altamont Corridor Express, which operates weekdays between Stockton and San Jose, also runs on Union Pacific tracks. Chris Kay, a spokesman, said the trackside equipment has been installed and is in testing and ACE is putting equipment on its trains. Testing is expected to start in June.