A map of railroad lines in the state and their owners. CT DOT
A map of railroad lines in the state and their owners.
A map of railroad lines in the state and their owners. CT DOT

Washington – In the wake of this week’s fatal Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, railroad experts and lawmakers like Sen. Richard Blumenthal are touting safety technology that’s been slow to come to Connecticut.

Using sensors placed on the tracks, Positive Train Control technology monitors trains and CAN automatically slow or stop them if they are going too fast or are in danger of a collision.

The complex and expensive system uses GPS, wireless radios and computers to monitor trains.

“We feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said about Philadelphia’s crash.

Amtrak has implemented the technology on about 400 miles of its track on the Northeast corridor, including its New Haven to Boston route, but not on a critical stretch of track in Philadelphia where Train No. 188 derailed on Tuesday, killing at least eight people and injuring more than 200. There is no PTC on Amtrak’s line to Springfield, Mass., through Hartford.

Neither is the technology on a single mile of track owned by the state.  Connecticut is almost unique in the nation in owning track used in the state – other than the routes owned by Amtrak. According to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, there are four tracks between New Haven and the New York line — a distance of about 50 miles — and branch lines to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury. (View detailed map of rail ownership in Connecticut.)

Judd Everhart, spokesman for the DOT, said $115 million has been earmarked for positive track control on the New Haven line, a heavily traveled stretch of track that runs from New Haven to Mount Vernon, N.Y. Most of the money came from the Federal Railroad Administration.

“We expect another $22 million later this year from FRA and another $5 million in state bonding, for a total of $142.6 million for the project,” Everhart said.

He said the state hopes to install the technology by 2018. He said he did not know what the total cost would be.

After two trains crashed head-on in California in 2008, killing 25 people, Congress mandated that PTC be installed throughout the nation’s railroad system by the end of 2015.

But implementing the system has been hampered by its cost. Everhart pointed out that Congress mandated implementation of the technology without offering any help to pay for it.

The Association of American Railroads has lobbied for a delay, citing the costs of installing PTC and challenges in testing and certifying systems. Congress was considering extending that deadline to 2020 before Tuesday’s crash in Philadelphia.

Blumenthal  said he opposes extending the deadline and that any  “delay is reprehensible and irresponsible.”

“There’s no question that Positive Train Control would have prevented this tragedy,” Blumenthal said of the Philadelphia crash.

The NTSB determined the train was traveling at 106 miles an hour on a section of the track that has a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit.

Blumenthal said delays in implementing PTC could result in more lost lives.

“I am saddened that this preventable tragic accident will be repeated if the nation fails to act,” Blumenthal said.

He said PTC would have prevented the deadly 2013 Metro North crash near the  Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx. That accident killed four passengers.

Metro North installed PTC on that stretch of track last year. Last month Metro North announced it had received a loan of nearly $1 billion from the Federal Railroad Administration to install PTC on its Long Island Line and other tracks in New York.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Thursday proposed Congress fund a proposal President Obama put in his 2016 budget — a $550 million capital fund  for the Northeast Corridor — and limit that money to rail safety improvements in  the stretch of rail from Boston to Washington, D.C.

Murphy said the funds could be used to address dangerous conditions along the tracks caused by decades of deferred capital projects — as well as the adoption of new safety technologies like PTC. But “Positive Train Control can only get you so far,” Murphy said. “It can’t prevent a railroad bridge from falling.”

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Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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