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Millions approved for automated collision-prevention system on MARC trains

New technology that could stop or slow a train before an accident — reducing the likelihood of operator errors becoming deadly — will be installed on all MARC trains.

The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a $13 million contract on Wednesday to begin installing "positive train control" equipment, which uses GPS and radio signaling to react automatically if a collision or derailment is anticipated.

Such a system might have prevented the December derailment of a New York passenger train that came off the tracks as it sped too fast into a turn, killing four and injuring more than 70. It would have prevented the 1996 collision between a MARC train and an Amtrak train in Silver Spring that killed 11 people, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates all major rail accidents.

Since 2005 alone, the NTSB has identified 15 rail accidents — in which 50 people were killed and 942 were injured — that the technology could have prevented.

In 2008, after a head-on collision between a passenger train and a freight train in California killed 25 people and injured more than 135, Congress passed a law requiring that positive train control be operational across much of the nation's rail network by 2015.

"We're all for it," said John Hovatter, MARC's director. "Anything to make our trains safer for our passengers and for the railroad, that's what we want to do."

Still there are miles to go before the system will be fully implemented for MARC trains and on the state's railroads as costs and other issues are expected to prevent full implementation before the 2015 deadline.

"Our goal here at MARC was to beat that deadline with the part that we had to take care of, and we're going to do that," said Hovatter of MARC's role in installing system hardware on its locomotives and cars. "What the railroads do, that's not up to us."

Two rail lines used by MARC commuter trains are owned and operated by the freight railroad CSX. A third is operated by Amtrak.

Both CSX and Amtrak are installing and testing their own vast networks of switches, signals, radio and communication equipment and operations centers associated with the technology, the companies said.

CSX is years away from completing the work and told the Federal Railroad Administration that it was not going to meet the 2015 deadline, said Ken Lewis, director of positive train control for the railroad.

"We're rallying the resources to get it done. We just need one more resource, and that's time," Lewis said.

The Jacksonville, Fla.-based company has more than 1,000 employees working on positive train control, and expects to spend $1.7 billion on implementation, he said.

The company already has begun installing new computers, interfaces and other equipment on about 2,400 of 3,600 trains, and has replaced signaling equipment on 2,400 miles out of 7,500 miles of track needed to meet the deadline.

It will begin field-testing software in a few months on tracks in the Carolinas, loading cars with ballast to test braking mechanisms associated with the system.

"We're going really as quickly as we can," he said.

Amtrak has been implementing the technology since 2000, and it is already in place throughout the Northeast Corridor and operating in many sections, including in parts of Maryland, said Craig Schulz, a spokesman for the national passenger railroad.

Amtrak expects to have the technology working throughout the corridor by the 2015 deadline, he said.

What's not clear is whether the system installed on MARC trains will work with the Amtrak system.

On Wednesday, Maryland awarded a sole-source contract to Germantown-based Wabtec Railway Electronics because it provided the system being implemented by CSX, Hovatter said. MARC operates trains over more miles of CSX track than over Amtrak lines.

The contract includes the installation of positive train control hardware on 32 MARC locomotives and 30 cab cars, as well as maintenance of the equipment through 2017.

However, Amtrak uses a different system.

Hovatter said the systems are compatible on trains traveling as fast as 79 mph, but some MARC trains reach 125 mph — and compatibility is an unknown at those speeds.

To address that issue, Amtrak and MARC plan to build a "test bed" of tracks north of Perryville in coming months to test compatibility at higher speeds, under a $700,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration, Hovatter said.

While a lot must still be worked out, the outcome — increased safety — will be worth it, he said.

The NTSB has been advocating for the implementation of positive train control since at least 1990.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents 51,000 engineers and trainmen across the country, said it "provides a safety overlay that assists locomotive engineers as they approach speed restrictions as well as required stops."

However, advocates of the technology have long butted heads with railroad industry leaders concerned about the costs and logistics involved in implementing the systems.

While almost all railroads are implementing the systems now, most will not finish by the deadline, citing billion-dollar price tags and issues with securing required radio bandwidth, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from August.

Issues of interoperability — like those facing MARC — are also high on the list of problems, as is the pace at which the technology is advancing ahead of the deadline, according to the report.

"Most railroads report they will not complete PTC implementation by the 2015 deadline due to a number of complex and interrelated challenges," the GAO report found. "Many PTC components continue to be in various stages of development, and in order to ensure successful integration of these components, railroads must conduct multiple phases of testing before components are installed across the network."

"All the technology stuff, that's the big problem," Hovatter said. "That has been the big bugaboo from the beginning."

CSX's Lewis said there was also the fear that early system problems, unaddressed amid the time crunch, could have a major economic impact.

"If it works the way it's designed, it's a good thing," he said. "But if it stops trains when it's not supposed to stop trains, it's obviously very bad for business."

The Federal Railroad Administration has requested the authority to extend the deadline on certain rail lines — a request the GAO report endorsed. A handful of U.S. senators have introduced legislation to delay the deadline.

Still, most rail operators are pushing ahead as fast as possible, officials said.

"It's going to make things safer," Hovatter said. "It's been proven to do that."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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