Heartland News I-Team Special Report: Back up Plan

Heartland News I-Team Special Report: Back up Plan

SCOTT CITY, MO (KFVS) - Could train collisions like the one between a Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe train in Scott County May 25 be prevented in the future?

For the past five years, there's been controversy over bringing in a computerized system to back up train engineers and conductors.

"It is currently only up to the operator," Robert Sumwalt with the National Transportation Safety Board says of the ability to prevent a train collision like the one May 25, 2013 in Scott County. "And what positive train control will do is provide redundancy."

The National Transportation Safety Board isn't shy in its support of Positive Train Control, a GPS driven system that would read signals as trains approach intersections.

"If there's a human error involved, if someone attempts to over speed the train or to operate it past a signal that should not be passed, positive train control will actually intervene and bring the train to a stop," he adds.

The idea of a computerized back up system stems from a deadly collision back in September 2008.

A four-car commuter train collided head on with a 17-car freight train just outside Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people and injuring 135 others.

The wreck led to the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

Included in the Act is a provision to make PTC mandatory on every mile of the U.S. Rail system by December 2015.

"Those things that we feel are most important for improving transportation safety, reducing injuries and fatalities," Sumwalt says. "Positive train control has been on our most wanted list for decades."

The trains involved in our recent collision met on tracks that intersected directly under the Highway M overpass in Rockview, Missouri.

The point the tracks cross is called an interlocker.

According to the NTSB, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe train was on the track headed southeast.

The Union Pacific train was headed due west.

Traditionally, the engineer and conductor would look for a series of signals to let them know if the other track at the interlock is in use.

Supporters say PTC would provide another set of eyes, and the ability to prevent these types of collisions.

But, critics call it a costly unfunded mandate.

Some estimates put implementation at more than $10 billion.

A report by the Federal Railroad Administration found a majority of railroads will not be able to meet that 2015 deadline.

Still, Robert Sumwalt and others stress, the time is now to get positive train control back on track.

"We do want to note that there is technology that is being developed that is coming down the track literally that should prevent the types of collisions we may be facing," Sumwalt says.

In the meantime, work continues to repair the stretch of Union Pacific track damaged in the collision.

UP spokesman Mark Davis says a rebuilt interlock will be installed at the site Monday, a job he estimates will take 12 hours.

There's no word on when the UP track will be back open.

The BNSF track was not damaged.

The National Transportation Safety Board has indicated the investigation could take up to a year.

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