Stopping train derailments here: Pricey brake system months, years away

  • Emergency crews work the scene of a deadly train wreck Wednesday in Philadelphia.

    Emergency crews work the scene of a deadly train wreck Wednesday in Philadelphia. Associated Press

Updated 5/13/2015 8:04 PM

With speed emerging as a possible cause of the fatal Amtrak derailment Tuesday in Philadelphia, many freight and passenger railroads including Metra are at least months away from installing an automatic braking system that would protect against similar accidents.

Known as positive train control or PTC, the high-priced technology can stop a train when a crash appears imminent. Experts think it will be a lifesaver and that it might have prevented the Philadelphia crash, as well as a 2013 disaster in the Bronx where a commuter train rounded a curve too quickly, killing and injuring riders.


The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating how the Amtrak train en route from Washington to New York City left the rails Tuesday, killing at least seven passengers.

Not only is PTC expensive -- Union Pacific Railroad, for example, has spent $1.6 billion on PTC -- but it takes a lot of time to install. BNSF Railroad's PTC effort stretches across 9,400 miles in 21 states.

As a result, major freight railroads are pushing Congress to extend a Dec. 31 deadline to implement PTC.

Tuesday's disaster will surely affect that discussion, DePaul University professor and railroad expert Joseph Schwieterman said.

"This is a game-changer," Schwieterman said, adding lawmakers might not be inclined to grant generous extensions to the railroads now. "This adds fuel to the debate over PTC."

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Metra directors in April approved spending $80 million for a PTC system integrator, which essentially makes different components like computers, radios and GPS talk to each other.

Metra expects its PTC costs will be up to $400 million to get it up and running plus $20 million annually to operate. That's a lot for the agency, which already has a capital shortfall. It might take until 2019 for PTC to appear on Metra-owned lines, although Union Pacific and BNSF lines will get the system sooner.

The NTSB contends PTC would have prevented two serious derailments on Metra's Rock Island Line in 2003 and 2005.

The NTSB also has called for a similar braking system to be installed on CTA trains in the wake of a March 2014 crash at the Blue Line's O'Hare stop. The train hit a bumper post and bounced onto an escalator, injuring numerous passengers.

There were 30 accidents involving Amtrak trains in Illinois from 2006 through February 2015, Federal Railroad Administration records show. Accidents include collisions and derailments.


Causes included human error, signal failures, defective rails and defective equipment such as wheels.

Here's a sampling of cases on mainline tracks.

• An Amtrak train derailed in Somonauk May 14, 2006, because of a track defect.

• An Amtrak train hit a Norfolk Southern Railroad train Nov. 30, 2007, in Chicago, injuring 136 people.

• An Amtrak train collided with a truck at a rail crossing and derailed at 51 mph on Dec. 8, 2008, in Brighton, north of St. Louis, injuring 14 crew and passengers.

• An Amtrak train derailed at 13 mph on Jan. 13, 2009, in Chicago because of a wheel defect, injuring four.

• An Amtrak train derailed Nov. 17, 2012, in Douglas County when a train car had a broken axle.

• An Amtrak train derailed Jan. 9, 2014, in Madison County due to a switching problem.

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