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

- By Michael Ca­banat­uan

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.

 ?? Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle ?? Cal­train ex­pects to out­line a plan in Fe­bru­ary to re­sume test­ing of pos­i­tive train con­trol, re­quired by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.
Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle Cal­train ex­pects to out­line a plan in Fe­bru­ary to re­sume test­ing of pos­i­tive train con­trol, re­quired by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.
 ?? Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle ?? Cal­train, which op­er­ates this train in Bris­bane, had the equip­ment in­stalled when it fired its contractor for miss­ing deadlines.
Michael Short / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle Cal­train, which op­er­ates this train in Bris­bane, had the equip­ment in­stalled when it fired its contractor for miss­ing deadlines.

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