Special Report: How a train safety system can prevent crashes and save lives

Special Report: How a train safety system can prevent crashes and save lives

(CBS 58) – We’ve seen it countless times across the country, images of deadly train crashes and derailments.

There’s been technology proposed for decades hoping to curb some of the collisions and derailments but the deadlines keep getting pushed back.

Positive Train Control is a complex braking system that is designed to stop trains in cases of excessive speed, track issues and when entering restricted zones.

“4,500 miles of tracks in the state of Wisconsin and about 6,000 crossings,” Wisconsin Commissioner of Railroads Yash Wadhwa said.

In 2015, a train derailed in Alma spilling 20,000 gallons of ethanol. A day later, a train derailment in Watertown spilled crude oil and forced dozens from their homes.

PTC installation was mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration more than a decade ago. It was supposed to be installed by 2015, then 2018 and is now being pushed back for some companies.

At a recent congressional hearing, lawmakers said they’re tired of a lack of progress.

“Have we not seen accidents that could have been prevented had there been PTC?” Florida Senator Bill Nelson asked.

“Yes Senator Nelson there have been some accidents that could have been PTC preventable, that is correct,” FRA administrator Ronald Batory replied.

Nationally, federal officials say 65 percent of the railroads required to have the technology do.

PTC installation involves a lot of coordination, each of the companies that own railroad tracks and trains need to install PTC on their equipment and make sure it all works together.

In Wisconsin, 10 different companies own railroad tracks. CBS 58 reached out to some of the major track owners. Right now, no passenger trains, including Amtrak, are operating with PTC and only some freight trains are.

“For all of this to work properly, railroads need to be interoperable with each other and seamlessly transfer,” Metra Positive Train Control engineer Paul Larsen said.

Metra takes commuters from Kenosha to Chicago multiple times a day. CBS 58 got an inside look at the company’s lab which is helping establish its PTC system.

If railroads don’t complete installation by the end of 2018, they need to ask the government for an extension or face fines of up to $27,000 a day.

The major railroad companies in our area say they’ll meet the December deadline or they’re asking for an extension. All companies must have PTC up and running by December 2020.

You can see the progress of PTC on the FRA’s website.

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