By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 29, 2016
A fatal New Jersey Transit train crash on Thursday morning is putting the spotlight on a potentially life-saving technology that railroads across the country have been slow to adopt.
Although the cause of the crash at a Hoboken train station is still unknown, preliminary reports suggest that it was caused by operator error, and that the train went through a bumper stop at the end of the track.
The train was not backstopped by positive train control (PTC), a technology that automatically slows a train that is going over the speed limit.
A central question that has emerged in the aftermath of the crash is whether it could have been prevented by PTC.
Officials acknowledged that the train was traveling at a high rate of speed, based on eye-witness accounts, but were reluctant to speculate about whether any automated technology could have prevented the crash.
"PTC no doubt can be a benefit, depending on circumstances. What we’re saying here is that we don't know what the circumstances were,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) during a news conference on Thursday. “It could be any number of things: personal to the conductor, equipment failure.”
Cuomo said they are focusing on figuring out the cause of the accident before trying to come up with solutions.
Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said at a press conference on Thursday that PTC is a top priority for the agency and it will “absolutely” investigate whether the crash could have been avoided by the technology.
A recent report from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) shows that the technology is only operating along 9 percent of freight route miles and 22 percent of passenger train route miles.
Congress originally gave commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the technology, which can prevent derailments, collisions, crashes and improper track switching.
But as railroads struggled to meet compliance deadlines, lawmakers pushed back the PTC implementation date to at least Dec. 31, 2018.
“I don’t think we should have extended the deadline while the trains were still running. I think that was unfortunate,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a Thursday news conference.
“We know that where [the technology] exists, safety is greatly improved. Hopefully we can revisit that.”
In the first half of 2016, New Jersey Transit made little progress in implementing PTC, according to the FRA report. The transit agency said its target completion date is 2018.
The transit agency has not yet conducted any employee training or equipped any of its 440 locomotives or 124 radio towers with PTC, and has zero route miles in operation, according to the report.
Other rail systems, including Amtrak and BNSF, have made far more significant progress.
But safety advocates have still criticized the pace of progress, and the NJ crash is likely to further fuel the debate.
One reason that railroads have been slow to install the technology is the cost. Freight railroads have already kicked in more than $6.5 billion in private funding for PTC, with the industry expecting final costs to reach over $10.5 billion by the time the automated system is fully operational, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Since 2008, Congress has awarded more than $650 million in federal grants to assist passenger railroads in equipping their systems with the technology.
The FRA doled out $25 million in PTC grants last month and is currently accepting applications for an additional $199 million in competitive grant funding.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has urged railroads to implement the technology ahead of the deadline, while also calling on Congress to provide additional funding.
President Obama sought $1.25 billion in his fiscal 2017 budget request to help railroads install PTC systems.
A deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia last year could have been prevented if the train operator, who was speeding around a curve, was backstopped by PTC.
The NTSB will be investigating the New Jersey Transit crash, along with the FRA, to determine the cause of the accident and the role that PTC could have played.
At least one person has been confirmed dead and over 100 have been injured, according to multiple reports.
“Our thoughts and prayers with those who are hurt and those who were killed,” Pelosi said. “Just so sad.”