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Railroads to miss deadlines for installing safety technology
Impact likely on local rail hubs
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Trains make their way through the Gainesville Amtrak station on Wednesday, August 12, 2015. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Some freight rail lines and commuter trains chugging through Gainesville and Hall County are not likely to meet an end-of-year deadline to install safety technology that would prevent locomotives from speeding and potentially reduce collisions, derailments and other accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board reports that positive train control, or PTC, could have saved an estimated 300 lives and prevented about 7,000 injuries over the last five decades if the technology had been in place.

A report from the Federal Railroad Administration to Congress last week, however, finds that just 39 percent of locomotives, and 29 percent of passenger trains, will have PTC installed by the end of 2015.

That deadline was set by Congress after a commuter train derailed in California in 2008, killing dozens.

Federal authorities believe PTC would have prevented a catastrophic derailment near Philadelphia in May that killed eight and injured 200.

Full implementation of PTC on commuter lines is not expected before 2020, and just three of 38 railroad companies have submitted safety plans that must be certified.

Costs, limited availability and attempts to standardize the technology have created delays, and railroad companies have long predicted that full-scale implementation was unfeasible prior to 2016.

The industry is projected to spend upward of $9 billion to install PTC.

“We’ve been saying this for a long time,” said Norfolk Southern Railway spokesman Rick Harris. “One of the things that has been most complicating … is its interoperability. The system has to be workable throughout the industry.”

PTC installation also includes a new wireless communications network and thousands of devices connected to signals and switches that alert motorists of inbound trains.

Training is also required for conductors and engineers.

Norfolk Southern is one of the largest railroad lines in the nation, and has a heavy presence in Hall County, where its freight trains can be seen at hubs in Gainesville and along rail lines through Lula and Oakwood.

The company also operates tracks that serve passenger trains. 

Harris said 115 of its 3,400 locomotives are now equipped with PTC, while 500 will be complete by the end of the year and another 2,000 will have partial installation.

But even reaching those numbers will still subject Norfolk Southern to potential fines and penalties next year.

A proposed bill in Congress would push the deadline to 2018.

Other large railroads that operate in Gainesville and Hall County include CSX and Amtrak.

CSX has equipped about 21 percent of its 3,900 locomotives with PTC, and the majority of Amtrak’s trains have not yet been fitted with the technology.

Meanwhile, Union Pacific still needs to equip most of its 6,532 locomotives, and BNSF Railway has fitted less than half of its 6,000 trains with PTC.

According to FRA accident reports, nine collisions between cars and trains occurred at the Tumbling Circle crossing near the University of North Georgia in Oakwood between 1997 and 2013, but there were no fatalities.

That crossing was closed by Norfolk Southern last year.

Another former crossing nearby is the site of a tragic accident in January 1968 that killed five students from Gainesville State College when their car was struck by a Southern Railway Co. train.

An analysis of crash data last year by The Times — based on comparing accident reports along the same Norfolk Southern Railway line in Hall County with public at-grade crossings similar to Tumbling Circle — shows that while accidents have been more frequent at Tumbling Circle, nine deaths have occurred at six other Hall County crossings over the last few decades.

Most of those crossings either had active warning signals, such as gates, in place at the time of fatal collisions.

On a typical day, 25 to 30 locomotives, including Amtrak trains, pass over the former Tumbling Circle crossing, according to Harris.

In fact, this is one of the most heavily traveled rail lines in the state, a main route linking Washington, D.C., with Atlanta.

And that makes installing PTC, and preventing future accidents locally, even more urgent.

Harris said that Norfolk Southern is working as fast as possible to implement the safety technology.

“I don’t think the people of Gainesville should have any concern about our commitment to safety,” he said.

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