Could commuter train crash like one in New Jersey happen here?
As investigators delve into the cause of a fatal New Jersey commuter train crash Thursday, one question already surfacing is the role an automatic braking system currently being installed on Metra could have played.
Last year, after pressure from railroads, Congress extended the deadline to put Positive Train Control in commuter and major freight trains from 2015 until the end of 2018 with the possibility of additional extensions until 2020.
The NJ Transit train sped past the end of the tracks and a bumper designed to stop it, smashing into the Hoboken station during the morning rush. One person died and more than 100 people were injured.
According to media reports, the train was not equipped with Positive Train Control.
"PTC has been one of our priorities ... we know it can prevent accidents," National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said at a briefing Thursday.
The BNSF Line is the first Metra route to be equipped with the safety system, which stops a train when a crash is imminent. Testing will start late this year and the system should be operating in 2017.
Next is the Union Pacific Line, which should have the program installed and running in 2018. The two lines are owned by major freight carriers, which are farther advanced in PTC than most commuter railroads. The safety system is both complicated and expensive.
Metra is paying about $350 million to $400 million for PTC and should complete the Rock Island Line in 2018 and the Milwaukee District, Metra Electric and SouthWest Service in 2019. Work on the North Central Service and Heritage Corridor should wrap up in 2020, depending on the Canadian National Railway.
The most recent major rail crash in the Chicago region involved a Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line subway train that sped into the O'Hare station without slowing, hit a bumper and bounced onto an escalator after the operator dozed off March 24, 2014. No one was killed but several people were injured in the crash, which happened early in the morning.
In that case, the NTSB ruled driver fatigue was a factor but federal regulators required transit agencies to check emergency braking provisions at dead-end stations.
The CTA also lowered the speed at the station and moved the bumping post farther away from the end of the tracks.