RAIL FL: SunRail Timing on Safety Upgrades Concerns Feds

Posted on February 11, 2016


Feb. 11--SunRail is one of four commuter trains in the U.S. that plans to carry out safety technology two years later than most others -- a concern for federal regulators who say it can save lives.

The federal government called for commuter and freight train systems to add an extensive web of safeguards by 2018, but SunRail and a few others got permission for a two-year delay.

Called "positive train control," a system of satellites, wireless radios and computers automatically slows or stops speeding trains that are headed for collisions and derailments. Federal officials say it would have saved the lives of eight passengers who died as a result of a speeding Amtrak crash in Philadelphia last year. Over the past 50 years, more than 280 lives have been claimed in crashes that resulted from speeding and derailed trains, according to federal reports.

"Positive Train Control prevents rail accidents and saves lives. We are encouraged that many railroads have submitted plans to meet -- some even to beat -- 2018," said Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration. "But we remain concerned that several other freight and passenger railroads are aiming for 2020."

SunRail officials said Tuesday they are working on the federal safety mandates that are expected to cost $35 million. The state is exploring funding sources.

The state, which operates SunRail, last year sought contractors to do the work. It pulled back on those plans because of changing technologies, said Steve Olson, district spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. That change led SunRail to request and receive extra time to implement safety measures. Officials will again seek contractors and hope to hire them by the end of the year.

"We're working on it," he said, adding that it would not guard against collisions with vehicles on the tracks.

The state, Olson said, will pay for the upgrades before handing over the system to Central Florida local governments in 2021.

While safety has been an increasing concern for Central Florida's commuter rail system since the 31.5-mile operation opened almost two years ago, Positive Train Control would not have helped so far. On average, SunRail has had an incident once every six weeks. State officials say the new technology would not have prevented those because they weren't caused by speeding trains.

To remind the public about safety concerns, the state has taken out billboards and worked with law enforcement to educate drivers about the need for caution near the tracks. In October, a southbound train sideswiped a dump truck that was too close to the track. The collision sent seven passengers to the hospital with minor issues.

Across the country, 24 commuter-rail systems must add the new safety protections. SunRail and three others are behind on original timelines to install the safety devices. Other commuter-rail operations that got extensions to 2020: Metra in Illinois, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and Trinity Express in Texas.

Several freight operators, including CSX, have been granted extra time with a 2020 deadline. It's a precise and complex system to install and "must perform flawlessly from the moment it's activated," said Kristin Seay, spokesperson for the rail-freight company.

So far, the Jacksonville-based company has 1,000 employees working on Positive Train Control and has spent $1.5 billion on it. CSX has completed airborne laser-imaging of its 21,000-mile network. It has installed thousands of units next to tracks and replaced signals along 4,700 miles of track. Almost 3,000 of its locomotives have been at least partially upgraded.

The overall tab for the freight-rail industry to install the new equipment exceeds $6 billion.

mshanklin@tribune.com or 407-420-5538

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