Safety system now in use in LA might have prevented NJ train crash

Metrolink was the first rail line in the country to use Positive Train Control, a technology that prevents collisions.
Metrolink was the first rail line in the country to use Positive Train Control, a technology that prevents collisions.
Paul Kimo McGregor via Flickr

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of a New Jersey train crash that killed one and injured about 100 others Thursday morning, but experts say it might have been prevented by safety technology now in use in Southern California.

Positive Train Control, a GPS-based system to prevent train collisions, uses technology installed in both train cars and tracks. The system basically allows the trains and tracks to talk to each other, sending alerts if trains miss a signal, travel too fast or enter tracks they’re not supposed to.

The system can even override the operator and stop or slow a train, if necessary.

Metrolink, the regional rail network that runs through six Southern California counties, was the first commuter line in the country to use Positive Train Control. The technology is now operating in 99 percent of Metrolink's system, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The safety measures came in response to the Chatsworth Metrolink crash in 2008. The collision killed 25 people when an engineer missed a stop signal and crashed into a freight train at full speed.

Soon after the crash, the federal government required all rail lines in the country to adopt the Positive Train Control safety systems. But most have lagged behind and missed the initial 2016 deadline. The deadline has been extended to 2018.

Many rail operators have complained of the cost of meeting the mandate to install the technology since it came without full federal funding.

Metrolink spent about $210 million to install its system and Amtrak and freight companies that share stretches of track with Metrolink paid millions more.

Metrolink's experience with Positive Train Control hasn't been all positive: the technology was blamed for significant delays in service last year as misfires caused trains to stop hundreds of times without apparent reason. 

The system also cannot prevent collisions when cars cross into train tracks at intersections, as has been the case in multiple deadly Metrolink crashes

The agency has added heavier locomotive cars to the front of all trains so passenger cars will not be directly exposed to collisions in those cases.

Positive Train Control is not required on L.A. Metro's subways and other light rails.