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American Shipper

BNSF, UP pledge advanced safety controls for SoCal trains

BNSF, UP pledge advanced safety controls for SoCal trains

Railroad operators Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific told California Sen. Dianne Feinstein Oct. 6 that the firms intend to deploy positive train control systems in the Los Angeles basin by 2012.

   However, the pledge from BNSF and UP, coming in the wake of a deadly freight and passenger train head-on collision last month that killed 25 people in Southern California, came with several major caveats.

   BNSF Chief Executive Officer Matt Rose told Feinstein that the railroads might need help from the federal government to pay for implementing the system in the Los Angeles area by 2012.

   The railroad has had a plan in place for implementation of PTC over many of the routes mentioned, said Carl Ice, BNSF executive vice president and chief operating officer, in a statement issued Wednesday.

   'We will be able to accelerate that plan to meet the statutory deadline and, if financing is available, may be able to implement PTC sooner in specific parts of our system, such as those where rail commuter service operates,' Ice said.

   In addition, BNSF and UP executives told a California state senate panel attended by Feinstein on Wednesday that the two firms would require added radio frequency spectrum allocations from the federal government to implement the PTC system.

   'A metropolitan area such as L.A. presents unique operational and technical requirements such as the high volume of radio spectrum needed and shared lines between freight and passenger trains,' said Dennis Duffy, UP executive vice president of operation, in a statement Wednesday.

   UP said it would install the PTC system on 2,000 locomotives and 60 miles of single track the railroad shares with passenger trains in Southern California. BNSF officials said they envision installing the safety system on nearly 70 miles of Southern California shared track, but did not indicate how many of the firm's 1,000 locomotives would be equipped.

   Both railroads already employ PTC systems on small segments of their track network. BNSF has successfully tested their system on a 135-mile stretch of track in Illinois and is continuing to test it between Fort Worth, Texas, and Oklahoma City. UP said Wednesday it has begun testing its version of PTC across 435 miles of its track network.

   Positive train control utilizes transponders, warning devices and automatic controls to provide additional notification to engineers if their train approaches an area of track that it is unsafe to enter. Some types of PTC systems also automatically brake an equipped train based on information for the PTC signaling components.

   Feinstein said that despite the railroads' caveats, she plans to hold them to their pledge.

   'I understand that there are details that need to be worked out, but I for one intend to hold the freight rail lines to their 2012 commitment,' Feinstein said in testimony before the state panel. 'We can't change the past, but we must make sure this kind of tragedy is never allowed to happen again. Major changes are needed on the local, state and federal levels.'

   Feinstein said President Bush intends to sign a railroad safety bill passed by Congress on Oct. 1 that would mandate the installation of PTC systems nationwide on freight/passenger train shared tracks by 2015.

   It is not clear if a PTC installation on the UP train involved in the deadly Sept. 12 crash in Chatsworth would have prevented its collision with the Metrolink passenger train.

   Federal investigators have said the engineer of the passenger train ran a red signal on the track only moments before the collision. The UP train, which was just coming out of tunnel, and the passenger train, which was coming around a sharp turn, had less than five seconds to react according to accident investigators.

   National Transportation Safety Board officials have also said that the engineer of the Metrolink train was sending text messages on his cell phone for several minutes immediately prior to the collision.

   On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that three witnesses — a Metrolink security officer and two rail enthusiasts — directly contradicted the NTSB claim that the Metrolink train ran a red signal before the crash. The three witnesses were at the last station the Metrolink train left before the collision and each reported that they saw a green signal as the passenger train left the station. According to the Times, even the NTSB agrees that the signal in question — located about a mile from the station — is visible from where the three were located.

   The NTSB did not offer comment about the three witnesses' comments.

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