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Safer Railroad Braking System Delayed by Cost, Technical Concerns


The technology has been around for nearly two decades.

An automatic braking system can link passenger and freight trains to rail side warning signals, triggering an emergency stop if trains are on a collision course.

In addition to improving safety, the technology could boost railroad efficiency as much as 30%, allowing trains to travel faster and closer together.

Federal officials investigating Tuesday's fatal crash of a freight train and Metrolink commuter train in Placentia said the accident would have been prevented had the system been in place.

But the rail industry and federal officials who regulate the rails have resisted, saying the $3-billion cost is too high. Moreover, they say the technology has problems.

Metrolink officials agree, even after Tuesday's crash.

"There are an incredibly complicated set of issues that still need to be addressed with this technology," said Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca.

As a result of the resistance, only two U.S. rail lines have the braking systems, to the frustration of regulators who have been calling for their mandatory use nationwide since the mid-1980s.

"Tuesday's accident was another one where not having this was a factor," said Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board. "When it keeps coming back up again and again that this could have been an issue in accidents, we need to address it."

Investigators believe the Placentia crash was caused when the crew of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train ran past two warning signals, plowing into the double-decker passenger train. Two passengers died and more than 100 were injured. The freight engineer told Placentia police he couldn't see the signals because the morning sun blinded him.

The NTSB--which handles safety investigations for the federal government, but lacks regulatory authority--has pressured the Federal Railroad Administration for years to require the automatic brakes. Yet rail administration officials maintain the cost must come down before they can force companies to use it. The rail industry hopes to create a system compatible across U.S. rail lines. Such tests have been going on for at least 15 years, and at one time included a pilot program in Southern California with Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

A central question in the debate is whether spending money on the computerized brakes is the best way to save lives. Only a fraction of train accidents are the result of train-on-train collisions. Most are caused by cars stuck at road crossings or pedestrians on the tracks.

"It is difficult to put a value on human lives, but to a certain extent the railroad industry has begun to do that," said Tom Sullivan, an Oakland-based transportation technology consultant. "In this case, it costs them about $3 [million] to $5 million a life to install these systems."

Railroad companies say they are waiting for the signaling industry to produce "off the shelf'" products that would make the technology cheaper and able to be used compatible across their rail networks.

"What good is it if a locomotive from L.A. won't work when it interchanges onto an eastern railway?" said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. "Those things are being worked out. It takes time to build consensus."

So in the age of cell phones and Palm Pilots, train operators continue to rely on technology rooted in the 19th century. And the industry sees no reason for immediate change, citing few train collisions.

The computerized brakes are in place only on a high-speed Amtrak corridor in the Northeast and an Amtrak line in Michigan.

Tests on a commuter line in New Jersey and a freight line in Alaska are expected to begin soon.

But the most widely anticipated test will take place in Illinois, where the railroad industry and government agencies are spending $35 million to install a satellite-linked braking system on 123 miles of track shared by freight and passenger trains.

Trains on that track will be equipped with computers linked to a satellite system and the railroad operations center. If the train is on a collision course, an alarm will sound in time for conductors to stop the trains. If they do not, and a crash appears imminent, the computer stops the train. Dispatchers will know the location of every train within a meter.

The system also will sense whether a train is going too fast for track conditions and will slow it down. The computer can sense the train's location in relation to railroad track workers and will be able to warn the conductor and the workers.

Trains currently run on a "block" system in which no more than one train can be on a section of track. Signal lights tell engineers when to yield to trains ahead of them. This has caused long delays on tracks shared by freight and commuter trains.

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