It could be a while longer before trains traveling through the Mid-Columbia can be stopped or slowed remotely.
BNSF Railway Co. has completed about 75 percent of its “positive train control” system in Washington, spokesman Gus Melonas said. This system aims to prevent accidents by automatically slowing trains that are above preset speed limits. Trains along BNSF's main line between Spokane and Vancouver, which stops in Pasco to change crews, will be prevented from going over 60 mph. That speed limit lowers to 40 mph in cities and 35 mph at switches.
The majority of the needed hardware for the system has been installed in Benton and Franklin counties, Melonas said. But it must still go through precision testing and final implementation before it is operational.
BNSF is installing the system on its lines going through the Tri-Cities that connect to Spokane and Vancouver, Wash., as well as a line from Pasco to Seattle, Melonas said. It has spent $1.23 billion on the development and deployment of positive train control nationwide.
“The majority of the work has been completed, but we want to ensure precision before it is put into place,” he said of Washington’s installation project.
No timeline is set for bringing positive train control to Washington, Melonas said.
Regulators say such a system could have prevented a May 12 Amtrak crash near Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured about 200. The train accelerated to 106 mph in the last minute before entering a curve with a speed limit of 50.
Positive train control, or PTC, will prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments and trains going through switches in the wrong position, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
“The Department of Transportation has long said that positive train control is a game changer for safety,” said Mike England, spokesman for the department’s railroad administration. “Simply put, it can eliminate accidents caused by significant human error. It has been and remains one of the department’s highest rail-related safety priorities.”
There are no positive train control systems operating on any tracks in Washington, said Amanda Maxwell, spokeswoman for the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. The Federal Railroad Administration requires railroads to install positive train control on all main lines, or interstate railways, by the end of this year.
“They are most likely not going to make that date,” Maxwell said, adding that the system requires hardware being installed on the tracks, as well as software to handle it.
Pasco officials have long been concerned about trains full of oil tank cars from North Dakota riding on BNSF rails near downtown. Fire Chief Bob Gear said the improved technology is welcome, but that speed is not the largest concern.
“It all helps. Obviously slowing it down is better than going too fast,” he said. “But there’s so much mass that they don’t have to be going very fast when they are coming off the tracks to do a lot of damage.”
Pasco has three full oil trains traveling through town each day, a number expected to increase to five by the end of the year, Gear said. The trains go from Pasco to Vancouver. Empty tank cars return near the Interstate 5 corridor and over Stampede Pass, then back through Badger Canyon, Kennewick and Pasco.
Firefighters would not be able to put out a fire after an oil train explosion, Gear said. They would have to wait for it to burn itself out.
“If it comes off the track and starts a fire, there’s nothing we can do except evacuate,” he said.
So far, BNSF has positive train control operational on 27 of its 97 routes nationwide, according to the railroad administration. Only a handful of other tracks across the country have it fully implemented, including some Amtrak rail lines in the Northeast, as well as its Michigan line between Kalamazoo, Mich., and Porter, Ind., and part of the Metrolink commuter railroad near Los Angeles.
A Metrolink train collision that killed 25 people in 2008 led Congress to require rail upgrades.
The nationwide upgrades will require 36,000 wireless devices be installed that relay information to train crews and dispatchers from signals and track switches, according to archives.
The federal law requires railroads to install the control systems on about 60,000 miles of the 160,000-mile rail network, the railroad administration said. That totals more than 97,000 miles, when including tracks that run side-by-side. About 8,400 miles of that 97,000 is Amtrak and commuter rail.
The railroad administration realizes that many railroads have struggled financially and technically to meet the deadline, England said.
“We have twice asked Congress for authority to better manage the deployment of this safety system as quickly and safely as possible,” he said. “Additionally, we have twice requested additional funding from Congress to help Amtrak and commuter railroads implement PTC. While we wait for Congress to act, we will continue to work with all of our stakeholders to ensure that railroads have PTC in use across the country as quickly as possible.”
A bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in March would give railroads until 2020 to install the upgrades.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, will evaluate current deadlines so railroad companies and Amtrak can continue to make safety improvements, a spokesman said.
“Railroad companies that are required to invest their own capital to comply with requirements to implement positive train control are unlikely to meet current deadlines, and debate continues over whether Amtrak is making the most effective use of their available resources in a way that prioritizes safety needs such as positive train control,” spokesman Will Boyington said.
Other safety measures
Track inspections and stronger rail cars are the best way to improve safety, Gear said.
Those types of improvements already are being made in the Mid-Columbia, Melonas said. He said BNSF has invested $580 million in Washington during the past three years.
This past year, BNSF added 17 miles of new track to run along existing track between Pasco and Spokane, including four miles of double track between Mesa and Connell in north Franklin County. It also replaced rail and ties, and added new concrete ties.
Tracks now have wayside detectors every 20 miles, which alert engineers if there is a mechanical issue, Melonas said. In addition, derailment detectors are located in the concrete ties every five miles.
BNSF has daily inspections of the tracks, and runs special cars through every 40 days that are designed to detect internal fissures in the rails, he said.
Trains are already equipped with an over-speed function, which applies emergency brakes if they exceed 74 miles per hour, Melonas said.
BNSF trains first responders across the state to assist the railroad in case of emergency, Melonas said. He points out that BNSF has not has a fatality caused by hazardous materials in the northern part of the country since the early 1980s.
“That does not come by luck,” he said. “That comes by focusing on safety.”