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Congressional action on train controls overdue

Train Crash-South Carolina
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The site of Sunday's early morning train crash between an Amtrak train, bottom, and a CSX freight train, top left, in Cayce, S.C. Federal investigators are planning to give an update on their probe into a deadly crash between a freight train and a passenger train in South Carolina. The National Transportation Safety Board says on Twitter that the agency will hold a meeting briefing at 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.( AP Photo/Jeff Blake)

Train Crash-South Carolina-4
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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The number of deadly train collisions keeps piling up years after Congress mandated that railroads install an automatic-braking technology to prevent such accidents. Congress must end the delays and demand that railroads implement positive train control systems nationwide without delay.

Before Sunday’s crash in Cayce that killed two people, there was the Amtrak derailment in Washington state that left three dead in December. There also was the derailment in Philadelphia that resulted in eight deaths. One person died when a transit train crashed into a New Jersey terminal. Hundreds were injured in these and other accidents.

After each collision, there was renewed talk about the need to implement the positive train control system Congress ordered in 2008. While the railroads expressed regret over the accidents, they also argued that the high cost of the system and the complexity of installing it made implementation extremely difficult.

Those explanations would carry more weight if at least some of the industry hadn’t been using them since the National Transportation Safety Board put the technology on its “most wanted” safety improvements list in 1990.

We get it. With estimates ranging from $10 billion to $22 billion, it will take a lot of industry and federal money to completely implement the system. But as the human toll mounts with each accident, that cost doesn’t seem so extreme. Indeed, while railroads have spent billions installing the equipment on some of their tracks, they also have found money to spend on new trains and stations. There’s more work to do, and available funds should go to safety measures rather than amenities.

In its simplest terms, positive train control is akin to a smart autopilot system that serves as a backup to the humans running the trains. It can override a train’s controls if it is going too fast or goes through a signal.

While the NTSB had been pushing for the technology for decades, it was a crash near Los Angeles that killed 25 people in 2008 that pushed Congress to mandate that the technology be in place by 2016. Still, the railroads complained that they would have to shut down on Jan. 1, 2016, if they didn’t get an extension.

So Congress allowed the railroads to kick the can down the road to the end of 2018, when more than three-quarters of railroads are expected to have the technology installed, but left a loophole that could push implementation on some lines to the end of 2020. It’s past time for Congress to insist that railroads finish the job.

A House subcommittee that includes Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., will take up the train technology issue on Feb. 15. It’s up to lawmakers from both parties to push for rapid full implementation. Lives depend on it.

Each new preventable accident is an unwarranted tragedy. Congress must stop the delays and get the railroads to install positive train control on all of the nation’s railways to prevent the next catastrophe.

The Post & Courier of Charleston, S.C.

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