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Railroads slow to add key technology

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 8:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — It was an accident investigators say didn't have to happen: Five years ago, a commuter train collided head-on with a freight train near Los Angeles, killing 25 and injuring more than 100.

Technology is available to prevent the most catastrophic collisions, but the railroad industry and its allies in Congress are trying to push back a deadline for installing the systems until at least 2020.

The National Transportation Safety Board had urged as far back as 1970 that railroads install technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions, including head-on crashes. The technology is known as positive train control, or PTC.

Under a law enacted by Congress a month after the accident, the systems are supposed to be up and running by Dec. 31, 2015. But only a handful of railroads are expected to meet that deadline. The rest of the industry says despite spending billions of dollars on the systems, they face logistical and technical hurdles and need more time. Four senators with industry ties recently introduced a bill to extend the deadline an additional five to seven years.

The delays show how a powerful industry can stall regulations it doesn't like, even after they're enacted into law. “This is not an issue where the industry is trying to get out of this mandate,” said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. “We have invested too much in it already, and it is in our best interest to get it done as soon as possible.”

But safety, labor and passenger advocates are skeptical that most railroads will ever implement the system without more government pressure.

“When they are pushing for a five-year extension with no changes, you have to wonder if they aren't hoping that some deregulatory White House will come along before then and just lift the burden,” said Ross Capon, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

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