High-tech program aims to cut train crashes

Posted3/20/2010 12:01 AM

Metra is forging ahead with technology aimed at making passenger and freight train travel safer.

Dubbed Positive Train Control, the initiative was mandated on all trains by the federal government in October 2008, just weeks after a fatal commuter train crash in California caused by an engineer who was texting.


Using onboard computers, communication systems, global positioning units and equipment installed at strategic points along the tracks, PTC can actually slow or stop a train in a dangerous situation.

It's aimed at reducing train collisions, railway maintenance worker fatalities and derailments because of excessive speed.

Metra is expected to complete a plan for the system by mid-April and finish installing it by the end of 2015.

Before a train leaves the terminal, all information about the route is downloaded into the computer system. If a problem arises, such as speeding on a hazardous curve, a warning will be sounded.

If the engineer doesn't heed the caution or follow-up alerts, the system "kicks in and auto-stops the train," Metra Deputy Executive Director of Operations Bill Tupper said.

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The program has generated push-back from some railroads, who question the cost and the safety gains, saying the government needs to be more flexible about the deadline and requirements.

Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano noted that Positive Train Control doesn't guarantee there never will be an accident.

But, "this is a significant, positive step for overall safety, not just for the commuter but for the freight rail systems," he said.

With 1,400 trains operating daily in the Chicago region - 700 of which are Metra's - the upgrade is both complex and expensive.

The cost is estimated at $100 million. Metra officials said they were budgeting for the program through the state's capital plan. Metra is sharing costs of the improvements with some of the railroads who owns several of its lines including the BNSF and Union Pacific.

The benefit don't just involve trains, Pagano said, adding that school buses and fuel trucks could be connected to the system so engineers know their proximity to railroad crossings.