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Delay in installation of speed controls leaves railroads vulnerable to accidents

An agreement by Congress to give railroads more time to install what most agree is a much-needed speed control system is a mistake that could prove disastrous.

In an example where deal-making trumps good policymaking, Congress agreed to language conveniently placed in a 1,000-page transportation law signed Dec. 4. It could extend until the end of 2020 the deadline for installing a life-saving piece of technology called positive train control. The system can slow or stop trains before an accident occurs.

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor – trains serving the Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Washington route – is heavily used thanks to its convenience and affordability. It became deadly when Northeast Regional Train No. 188 traveling from Washington to New York at 106 miles per hour entered a curve in Philadelphia where the speed limit was 55 miles per hour. The engine and seven cars derailed, killing eight and leaving dozens injured.

Rail safety advocates insist that the positive train control system could have prevented the May crash in Philadelphia.

At the time, Amtrak had installed positive train control along much of its Northeast Corridor, but not along the stretch in Philadelphia where the accident took place. Reports said the system had been only months from being operational.

Amtrak recently announced that all of the tracks it owns between Washington and New York have the system installed and operational.

But thousands of miles of track remain unprotected. Congress continues to allow delays, favoring the railroad industry while causing anxiety for federal regulators.

The original deadline for installing the system on all freight and commuter trains was 2015, according to the New York Times, under a law passed following a 2008 commuter rail crash in California that killed 25 and injured 135.

The National Transportation Safety Board, according to the Times, says the technology could have prevented 145 rail accidents since 1969 that killed 288 people and injured 6,574.

Industry appeals to lawmakers for more time have been successful, despite the efforts of the Obama administration, which threatened civil penalties starting at $5,000 a day, and Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Schumer has long been an advocate for safer trains in densely populated areas of New York. Blumenthal has been a vocal critic of an extension for railroads to install positive train control.

History supports their advocacy.

A 2013 explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, claimed 47 lives when a train carrying crude oil derailed. An oil train derailed in Cheektowaga later that year, luckily with no injuries.

Most of us would rather not rely on luck.

Rail is indispensable to the nation’s transportation and economic system. Congress should support efforts to enhance safety, not buy into potentially lethal delaying tactics.