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System to prevent deadly train crashes still more than a year away for Toledo

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OBJECTA computer-driven system that could help prevent train crashes — similar to this week's Amtrak train derailment — could be installed in Toledo as early as next year.

After a freight train and a commuter train collided near Los Angeles in 2008, killing 25 people, a federal legislators passed a law requiring United States railroads to install computer-driven systems on many of their main lines to prevent crashes because of excessive speed.

But there was no such system in service on a track in Washington state where an Amtrak Cascades train derailed on a speed-limited curve and plunged onto a freeway Monday, killing three train passengers. Nor is such a system currently in operation on the tracks through Toledo that Amtrak passenger trains use between Chicago and Cleveland. 

Representatives of Norfolk Southern, which owns the tracks through Toledo, and the Michigan Department of Transportation, which owns the Detroit-Chicago tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo, said work is on target to comply with federal law, which requires the new safety system, called Positive Train Control, to be installed by the end of next year and fully operational by 2020.

Until then, train passengers in northern Ohio and southern Michigan will have to entrust their safety to engineers’ adherence to speed limits — for which there often is not so much as a speed sign along the tracks to remind them. The Norfolk Southern line through Toledo is one of many lines that has no permanent speed limit signs.

No crashes have occurred on the line through Toledo in recent years that were attributed to failure to obey the speed limit on a curve, although disaster was narrowly averted in 2005 when an eastbound freight train’s crew failed to notice a yellow signal.

The train then ran past a red signal in Millbury before colliding at low speed with an oncoming train that was transferring from one track to another there. No one was injured or killed.

A train control system would have automatically slowed the train that went by the yellow signal and stopped it before it reached the red. As it happened, the crew saw the red and applied emergency brakes, but could not stop in time to prevent the collision.

 Michael Frezell, an MDOT spokesman, said a similar system, called Incremental Trains Control System, is already in use on Amtrak-owned track between Kalamazoo and Porter, Ind. It’s now installed and being tested on the state-owned section and scheduled for activation by the end of 2018.

“[The control system] is a complex system involving computers, locomotives, radios, signals, and other equipment requiring rigorous testing before it is implemented,” Mr. Frezell said. “The Michigan Line also will soon be receiving new passenger locomotives, so the [train control system] will need to be programmed and connected to them.”

Jonathan Glass, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said his company has installed the train control system on about 3,000 miles out of 8,000 miles of its lines for which it is planned, and is on track to meet the statutory schedule for the rest.

Mr. Glass said his company’s expense for Positive Train Control will be about $1.8 billion.

The Norfolk Southern route through Toledo ranks among the company’s busiest and most complicated, with multiple main tracks, numerous junctions, and a mix of heavy freight trains, higher-speed intermodal trains, and Amtrak passenger services.

It’s unknown why the train that crashed Monday entered a 30-mph curve at 80 mph. It was the first passenger-carrying train to use the track involved — an old freight branch rebuilt as a bypass around part of Tacoma, Wash., on the route between Seattle and Portland, Ore.

Yet even on a newly rebuilt track, the federal law allowed train service to begin without the enhanced safety system being operational.

The National Transportation Safety Board will formally determine the cause of the Monday derailment.

Contact David Patch at dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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