Metrolink to become first commuter rail line with new 'collision avoidance' safety system (Update)

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Metrolink is expected to announce Thursday that it has become the first commuter rail system in the nation to implement a state-of-the-art collision avoidance technology known as "positive train control."

The system, PTC for short, tracks a train's speed, position and whether it has run a red light, and it can slow or stop the train if there is trouble. The PTC system must be installed on passenger trains by 2015 under a federal mandate set forth in the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which was passed just a month after a 2008 train crash in Chatsworth killed 25 people.

Metrolink, Southern California's commuter rail system, was the operator of that train.

“Positive train control would have prevented the collision at Chatsworth,” said Steven Ditmeyer, who teaches at Michigan State University’s Railway Management Program. 

Ditmeyer served 18 years with the Federal Railroad Administration and worked for Burlington Northern Railroad when it was developing the first positive train control system in the late 1980s and early 90s. 

“It would not have permitted the Metrolink train to pass the red signal, go out onto the main line and collide with the freight,”  Ditmeyer told KPCC.   He added that the technology would have also prevented the derailment of  Metro-North commuter train in the Bronx last December

Metrolink Board member Richard Katz called positive train control “probably the most significant improvement we’ll see in our lifetime relative to railway safety.”

The agency noted in a statement sent out Wednesday that it's already able to have the system up and running on select trains. The capability is expected to be available more broadly by the summer of 2014.

Other commuter rail systems around the country have had trouble sticking to a schedule which would allow their systems to be up and running by 2015, leading to an effort by some in the industry to extend the deadline to 2020. But in the aftermath of the Chatsworth crash, Metrolink board member Richard Katz said the commuter rail service made installing the new system a priority.

“One thing I know for sure is that every year you delay putting in positive train control, somebody will die who didn’t have to, and we weren’t going to let that happen here” Katz told KPCC.  “Other systems didn’t make it the priority we did and you hope that in the other systems they don’t have to experience something like Chatsworth to understand why it should be a priority.”

Part of prioritizing for Metrolink was being willing to foot more of the bill.  Metrolink’s member agencies are paying roughly half of the $216 million price tag for positive train control.  The federal government paying about 9 percent, with the state of California covering 42 percent.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found the 2008 Chatsworth crash involved an engineer who was texting on the job. The hope is that PTC will help to avoid tragedies caused by human error.

This story has been updated.

With contributions by KPCC staff

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