OMAHA, Neb — The automatic braking system railroads were required to install several years ago needs improvement to better prevent collisions, federal safety investigators said in a report Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s report urged the Federal Railroad Administration and the industry to keep developing new technology that can be used to improve Positive Train Control systems. Their recommendations included at least one practical idea that railroads could likely implement relatively quickly.
Railroads spent 12 years and roughly $15 billion to develop and install the automatic braking system after Congress required it in 2008 in the wake of a collision between a commuter and freight train in California that killed 25 and injured more than 100.
The system, in place on about 58,000 miles of track nationwide since 2020, is designed to reduce human error by automatically stopping trains in certain situations, such as when they’re in danger of colliding, derailing because of excessive speed, entering tracks under maintenance or traveling the wrong direction.
The National Transportation Safety Board has said more than 150 train crashes since 1969 could have been prevented by Positive Train Control. The agency had recommended the automatic braking system for years before it was mandated by Congress, which extended the original 2015 deadline twice and gave railroads until the end of 2020 to complete the system.
The Association of American Railroads trade group said the industry is focused on “maintaining and advancing” the braking system and will keep looking for improvements.
“Railroads continue their work to enhance the system in ways that further improve safety and drive down accidents,” association spokesperson Jessica Kahanek said.
The Federal Railroad Administration didn’t immediately comment on the new report.
Railroad safety has been a key concern nationwide this year ever since a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in eastern Ohio and caught fire. The crash was likely caused by an overheating bearing and isn’t one the automatic braking system is designed to prevent.
Chair Jennifer Homendy said Positive Train Control is clearly helping improve rail safety but that “we haven’t achieved zero deaths on our railroads, which means there’s more we can and must do to strengthen safety.”
Railroads have suggested that the braking system could make the second crew member in cab locomotives unneeded, but unions have long opposed the idea of cutting train crews down to one person because of safety concerns.
The National Transportation Safety Board said there are several shortcomings of the current railroad braking system that developed partly because the system had to be designed so that every railroad’s system would work on another railroad. Locomotives are often passed back and forth between railroads to help keep trains moving.
One of the more practical recommendations the board made was for railroads to develop a way to automatically turn the automatic braking system back on after it is manually disabled to allow for common switching movements that involve backing a train onto the main line through a red signal.