WASHINGTON — Many commuter and freight railroads have made little progress installing safety technology designed to prevent deadly collisions and derailments despite a mandate from Congress, according to a government report released Wednesday.
The technology, called positive train control, or PTC, uses digital radio communications, GPS and signals alongside tracks to monitor train positions. It can automatically stop or slow trains to prevent them from disobeying signals, derailing due to excessive speed, colliding with another train or entering off-limits track.
The Federal Railroad Administration report shows that while some railroads have made substantial progress, others have yet to equip a locomotive or track segment with the technology or install a radio tower.
Congress passed a law in 2008 giving railroads seven years to put the technology in place, and last year extended that deadline three more years after railroads said they were unable to meet the first deadline.
Railroads shouldn't wait for the deadline to complete their work on PTC, said Sarah Feinberg, head of the railroad administration.
"Every day that passes without PTC, we risk adding another preventable accident to a list that is already too long," she said.
So far, PTC is in operation on 9 percent of freight route miles and 22 percent of passenger train miles, the report said.
Freight railroads have equipped 34 percent of their locomotives, installed 73 percent of their radio towers and completed 11 percent of their track segments. Passenger railroads have equipped 29 percent of their locomotives, installed 46 percent of their radio towers and completed 12 percent of their track segments.
The NTSB has urged railroads to install PTC or earlier train control technologies for more than four decades. The board said that over that time it has investigated at least 145 PTC-preventable collisions in which about 300 people were killed and 6,700 injured.
More recently, the board said PTC could have prevented the collision of two BNSF trains in June near Panhandle, Texas. Three railroad employees were killed. The technology also could have prevented the derailment of a speeding Amtrak train in Philadelphia last year. Eight people were killed and over 200 injured in the crash.