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After Philly crash, railroads got more time to install a key safety system. Three years later, some still lag behind

Unless railroads speed up the pace of installation of Positive Train Control, another deadline imposed by Congress will come and go with many rail passengers still vulnerable to the same kinds of human errors that have led to fatal consequences.

The remains of one of the rail cars from Amtrak train 188 derailment at the scene in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia on May 14, 2015.
The remains of one of the rail cars from Amtrak train 188 derailment at the scene in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia on May 14, 2015.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI

After Amtrak Train 188 derailed in Philadelphia on May 12, 2015, national safety experts said the accident that killed eight and injured hundreds could have been prevented with a safety fix Congress had mandated in 2008: Positive Train Control.

Railroads were supposed to have the system, which automatically controls train speeds to prevent accidents, in place by the end of 2015. But almost none had acted quickly enough to meet that requirement, so Congress voted to give them more time.

Nearly three years later, and with just six months to go before the new deadline, it's increasingly clear that a half-dozen or more railroads are still moving too slowly to meet even the revised due date at the end of 2018. Unless they speed up the pace, another expected installation date will come and go with many rail passengers still vulnerable to the same kinds of human errors that have led to fatal consequences.

NJ Transit is among the country's most egregious laggards, according to federal officials, congressional staffers and public data.

It was one of 12 commuter railroads that got letters from the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) this spring warning that they were "at risk" of failing to install the system by the end of 2018, or of even showing enough progress to qualify for an extension to 2020.

NJ Transit had installed just 13 percent of the required PTC hardware as of May 28. To meet the year-end deadline, it should have been at 85 percent in March, according to the FRA.

SEPTA and Amtrak have each made significant progress in installing the safety system on their tracks — but still face technical challenges.

>> READ MORE: How SEPTA got it right on a critical railroad safety system

Amtrak, which runs much of its service on tracks it does not own, has threatened to cease service on tracks that may not have operational PTC systems by 2019, which could include 300 to 700 miles of track.

An update on the railroads' progress is expected in July or August, FRA officials said. Congressional aides estimate that eight to 10 of the 29 commuter railroads covered by the law are at risk of failing to meet the criteria necessary to avoid sanctions in 2019.

Meanwhile, more people have died in crashes that safety experts say would have been prevented by PTC. Among the incidents was an Amtrak derailment in Washington state last Dec. 18, which killed three when the engineer, as in Philadelphia's 2015 crash, approached a curve while going too fast. In all, the National Transportation Safety Board says, 23 people have been killed and more than 300 injured in preventable incidents between the time PTC was first mandated, in 2008, and when it was supposed to be finally installed, in 2015.

>>READ MORE: Tragic parallels between Washington Amtrak derailment and Philly's are growing

Lawmakers who gave railroads more time in 2015 now say they are tired of the excuses they have heard for a decade from rail lines that haven't moved fast enough.

"They better get it done," Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), chair of a Senate committee that oversees rail service, said Thursday, citing a "handful" that remain behind. "I don't think they understand that this is serious business, and if they don't meet that deadline, there are going to be consequences."

Installing PTC is expected to cost $14 billion nationwide for about 60,000 miles of track. It requires 40 freight and commuter railroads to train engineers, install hardware on both vehicles and tracks, and acquire radio frequencies.

Freight railroads are performing better than passenger rail, with at least 80 percent of freight train tracks expected to have PTC in operation by the end of the year, according to the Association of American Railroads.

As of March 31, just 60 percent of passenger railroads had PTC equipment installed in all their locomotives, compared with 85 percent of freight railroads, according to the FRA. Less than half of all passenger rail tracks are equipped with PTC, and it's only in use on 25 percent of those tracks, though the American Public Transportation Association, a public transit advocacy group, anticipated most railroads would meet statutory requirements by the end of the year to allow them to receive extensions.

The FRA can start fining noncompliant railroads in 2019, and Amtrak officials have warned that they may bar such railroads from running on their tracks, along with possibly cancelling its own trains' routes on noncompliant tracks.

Top Republicans and Democrats said last week they won't provide relief this time.

"It's not going away," said Rep. Peter De Fazio (D., Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. "I don't think anyone wants to offer a delay and then have an accident."

Rep. Jeff Denham (R., Calif.), the chair of the House's rail subcommittee, said, "We want no excuses. … There will be very little tolerance to the railroads' not meeting the letter of the law on this deadline."

The push to make railroads improve their safety system goes back a decade. After 25 people died in a 2008 collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., Congress passed a law requiring railroads to install the system by the end of 2015.

Many railroads, however, didn't seem to start taking the issue seriously until the 2015 deadline approached, Democratic and Republican aides said. Railroads also faced steep technical and bureaucratic challenges. Five months after the Philadelphia crash, lawmakers voted to give rail lines more time.

They are now required to have PTC active by the end of this year, but if they meet six significant installation milestones, they could qualify for an extension until 2020 to have the system fully operational.

Most railroads are on track to meet those milestones, which would keep them in line with the law. But even though they have made progress, the system still won't be completely up and running this year.

One of the biggest challenges is that even when railroads install all the necessary equipment and get the system running, they still need to coordinate their PTC systems with other railroads that use the same tracks. That's technically difficult, meaning that some that have made progress are still waiting on others to catch up.

SEPTA, for example, has been a national leader in PTC installation, and all its trains now run with it. But it still has to ensure its system is fully integrated with freight trains that use 42 miles of its track.

Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA's general manager, expects the inter-operability issues will be resolved by the end of the year.

It's unclear how many railroads will be in a similar situation, since they could wait until Dec. 31 to request an extension. So far just one railroad, BNSF, has requested an extension.

Amtrak plans to do risk analyses on all railroads it shares space with that won't have PTC fully in place by 2019.

"Under present law, Amtrak cannot permit noncompliant equipment on the railroad," Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said at a March Senate hearing.

>>READ MORE: NTSB: Amtrak crash went 'from distraction to disaster' in seconds

NJ Transit did almost nothing before 2015, according to five current and former congressional aides familiar with its work, though several said it has picked up the pace under a new administration in Trenton.

"Something this important was really not given the attention it required," said State Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D., Middlesex), head of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The rail agency has scaled back its ambitions as it tries to meet the targets required for an extension under the law. It plans to outfit only half its 440 train cars, according to Diegnan. Federal officials say that would be in line with requirements but could leave NJ Transit with fewer resources to maintain reliable service. It also got approval from the FRA to limit PTC testing to less than 17 miles of the Morristown Line by the end of the year, FRA officials said. The rail service, which provides 62 million trips a year, is likely to struggle to have PTC active on the 326 route miles required to have the system even with those more lenient marks, though.

NJ Transit declined to answer detailed questions about its PTC installation process but said it was working with the FRA to meet the regulatory agency's requirements.

Despite lawmakers' tough talk, it will be up to the FRA to decide how to enforce the law — and it's not clear how aggressive the agency will be in applying penalties or granting leeway. It has the power to impose fines up to $27,904 a day on railroads that miss the deadline or fail to show enough progress.

FRA has not formally said how it plans to handle delinquent railroads at year's end, but aides in both parties said they had received assurances from FRA Administrator Ronald Batory that he would assess penalties. Agency officials have said the FRA would not seek to shut down railroads.

He told Politico this month that "we should be assessing full retail," referring to the maximum possible fine.

Whether railroads are outright out of compliance or need an extension, the reality is that when a new year arrives, it is likely some of America's railroads will not be protected by PTC.

The Philadelphia crash is a grim reminder of what's at stake.

Gilda Jacobs, a former Michigan state senator, wrote to Congress earlier this year about her daughter, Rachel, who was killed in that wreck at age 39. Sen. Gary Peters (D., Mich.) read Jacobs' words at a March hearing, recounting the husband and 5-year-old son Rachel left behind.

Seeing more people killed while the technology awaits, Jacobs wrote, "my anger is seething."