Deadly Amtrak crashes can be prevented. Here’s why NC doesn’t have the fix yet.

Trains and tracks in North Carolina will eventually be equipped with a system that could have prevented the fatal Amtrak crash in South Carolina early Sunday, but it will take a year or more for it to be operational.

Amtrak and the two railroads that operate the mainline routes in North Carolina – CSX and Norfolk Southern – have until Dec. 31 to install a system that would automatically slow or stop a train that is going too fast, has been switched onto a wrong track or is at risk of colliding with maintenance workers or another train.

piedmont train
All Amtrak trains in the Carolinas, including the Piedmont that makes three runs a day between Raleigh and Charlotte, have been canceled Thursday through the weekend because of Hurricane Florence. Chris Seward

Congress passed the bill that required railroads to create so-called “positive train control” or PTC systems in 2008 and initially set a deadline of late 2015. When it became clear the railroads wouldn’t make the deadline, Congress gave them three more years, with the possibility of a two-year extension.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt says PTC would likely have prevented Amtrak’s Silver Star train from traveling onto a side track and crashing into a parked CSX freight train outside Columbia, S.C., early Sunday morning. The Amtrak engineer and conductor were killed, and about 100 others on the passenger train were injured.

The technology for PTC didn’t exist when Congress required it, said Allan Paul, the deputy director of the N.C. Division of Railroads. In a promotional video, Norfolk Southern compares PTC to putting a man on the moon.

Freight railroads will have spent an estimated $10.6 billion developing PTC when it’s all in place, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“It was an unfunded federal mandate,” Paul said.

PTC uses GPS, computers and wireless technology to track the location, direction and speed of a train and warn the operator of potential problems before braking automatically. It entails geo-mapping nearly 60,000 miles of railroad, putting new communication equipment and computers onto more than 21,000 locomotives and installing new signaling equipment and radio towers along the tracks. All of it is connected to new back-office computers that keep track of the trains and any changes along the tracks.

PTC has been activated on about 90 percent of the tracks that Amtrak owns, including nearly all of the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston, said Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods. But outside of the Northeast, Amtrak mostly uses tracks owned or operated by freight railroads, including CSX and Norfolk Southern in North Carolina, and cannot begin using PTC until the equipment is in place.

“When this is complete by each owner, Amtrak can then activate the elements of the PTC system that are in our locomotives and cab cars,” Woods wrote in an email. As of last September, 71 percent of Amtrak’s 459 locomotives had been equipped with PTC equipment.

The N.C. Department of Transportation will install PTC equipment on Piedmont passenger trains that run between Raleigh and Charlotte by the end of this summer, Paul said. That includes eight locomotives and five “cab control units” – locomotives without engines that the state will begin using to operate the trains in tandem with standard locomotives later this spring. The Piedmont’s two daily round trips will be expanded to three in May and four in 2020.

But the Piedmont locomotives won’t be able to use PTC until Norfolk Southern, which operates the tracks between Raleigh and Charlotte, has its PTC system up and running, and it’s not clear when that will happen. Railroads are required to report progress on PTC to the Federal Railroad Administration each quarter. But the reports don’t specify work by state, and company officials declined to elaborate or provide a timetable for progress on the tracks in North Carolina.

CSX and Norfolk Southern say they expect to meet the congressional deadlines, but in both cases that means some parts of their PTC systems may not be ready until 2020.

Norfolk Southern operates 1,190 miles of track in North Carolina, including the N.C. Railroad line from Morehead City through the Triangle and Triad to Charlotte. As of the end of 2017, the company says it was operating PTC trains on 3,387 miles of track, or about 42 percent of its track covered by the federal mandate.

CSX, which operates 1,800 miles of track in the state, including switching yards and sidings, had equipped all of its 2,000 locomotives but only about 45 percent of its track throughout its network as of Sept. 30, according to the most recent data reported to the federal government. The company does not release information about which stretches of track will be ready when, but its report indicates that PTC won’t be operating on some segments until 2020.

Paul, at NCDOT, says he couldn’t say when CSX or Norfolk Southern will have PTC operating in the state.

“Both companies are hard at work installing PTC throughout North Carolina,” he said. “It’s a very complex technology, but a lot of very smart people are working on it.”

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling