Coming down the track: technology seeks to stop train derailments

By Sarah Lehr


Each day, trains carrying hundreds of gallons of oil barrel through the Mahoning Valley.

Though freight trains undergo regular inspections and contingency plans are in place, the unlikely possibility derailment of an oil train still looms large.

A 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation predicted that, over the next two decades, derailments of trains carrying crude oil or ethanol would occur an average of 10 times per year. The report estimates the total damage at $4 billion.

Technology called Positive Train Control, which gradually is being installed across the United States, could serve as one of many safeguards against derailments.

PTC, which is expected to cost $10 billion to install nationwide, serves to override human error in the event that an engineer fails to notice a signal to stop or slow a train. PTC uses GPS or antenna communication to signal among three entities – a central dispatch center, “wayside units” along the tracks and a computer within the train itself.

The technology could slow down a train when it exceeds a designated speed, is about to collide with another train or is about to enter a work zone.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, has proposed stricter standards for railway tankers and hazardous materials.

His office released a statement on PTC, stating, “Many Ohio communities – including in the Mahoning Valley – see trains carrying hazardous materials travel through their communities every day. One effective way we can improve the safety of these trains and passenger rail is to implement positive train control. Freight rail is critical to the transportation of goods in and out of our state, so we should take advantage of technologies that make our railroads safer.”

Ed Greenberg, spokesman for the American Association of Railroads, described PTC as a “system of systems.” The freight industry, he said, “remains fully committed to implementing positive train control as soon as is safely, legally and technologically possible.”

“PTC isn’t just about plugging in or turning on components; it is a complex process,” Greenberg said. “It’s not off-the-shelf technology. It had to be developed from scratch.”

Though freight trains remain the chief concern in the greater Youngstown area, PTC also can act as a safeguard for passenger trains.

Experts say the Amtrak derailment last spring in Philadelphia could have been prevented with the installation of PTC. That crash, which killed eight and injured 200, occurred at a curved section of track. The train was traveling at more than 100 mph, despite the 50-mph speed limit for that section.

Between 2002 and 2008, several other fatal railway accidents prompted the U.S. Congress to pass the Railway Safety Improvement Act. Among other regulations and improvements, RISA mandated the implementation of positive train control for about 60,000 miles of track by Dec. 31, 2015.

In November 2015, Congress voted to extend that deadline to Dec. 31, 2018. There also are extensions to 2020 for railways that meet certain requirements.

Both CSX Corp and Norfolk Southern – two major rail companies that run lines in the Mahoning Valley – have reported they would be unable to make the 2018 deadline.

CSX spokeswoman Gail Lobin said she could not comment on whether CSX is planning to install PTC in Mahoning County because the company does not release location specifics for security reasons. However, she said the company has trained close to 1,200 employees in PTC, installed 2,400 wayside units and replaced signals on about 4,700 miles of track. The company expects to spend $2.2 billion to fully install the technology by 2020, Lobin said.

Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpey said the company has spent “hundreds of millions” of dollars to develop and implement PTC.

A company called Arcadis is seeking a Federal Communications Commissions license to use a telecommunications tower in Campbell to implement PTC, according to a public notice. The tower sits in a rail yard near Powers Way and Poland Avenue. Arcadis is soliciting public comments on the proposal until Sunday.

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