North Texas

New Safety Technology Delayed on North Texas Commuter Line

Federal transportation authorities have expressed frustration over a delay in installing new safety measures on a commuter railway that thousands of North Texans use each day.

The National Transportation Safety Board says the technology, called “positive train control,” is meant to prevent potentially deadly accidents, and should be fully implemented on trains by the end of the year.

But officials with the Trinity Railway Express – a line connecting downtown Dallas with downtown Fort Worth, and communities in between – told NBC 5 Investigates they are not worried about waiting as long as a year to give passengers that extra level of safety.

The delay could prompt the federal government to put a halt to the rail service between Big D and Cowtown until the new technology is on-board, officials said.

In addition, Amtrak service between Dallas and Fort Worth could be stalled.

That service utilizes TRE’s 32-mile track. And Amtrak’s CEO has told congress it will not operate on tracks, after December 31, which do not comply with federal regulations.

However, an Amtrak spokesman, Marc Magiliari, said it would “be premature to speculate” on what would happen if full compliance is not met by the deadline.

The Federal Railroad Administration notified the TRE three weeks ago, saying the government “remains concerned about the TRE’s ability to meet the statutory deadline for implementation of a positive train control (PTC) system.”

That deadline, NBC 5 Investigates has learned, is just six months out.

“Any delay in implementing positive train control from a safety perspective is unacceptable,” said Robert Sumwalt, NTSB’s chairman.

Sumwalt said the new technology could help prevent accidents like the one in Pennsylvania in 2015 when an Amtrak crash killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.

PTC uses wireless technology and GPS, allowing train computers, as well as train operators, to communicate with one another to avoid collisions. The equipment also alerts operators when they are going too fast and shoots alerts when they are approaching a problem on the track.

The technology, Sumwalt said, “provides a level of redundancy so that when a human makes an error, positive train control will intervene and keep that error from being catastrophic.”

But managers at the TRE told NBC 5 Investigates they feel it is okay to wait until at least 2019 to provide the extra level of security.

Asked if the delay could put passengers in greater risk, Reed Lanham, vice president over technology at the TRE, said, “Well, um, I would not think so. Again, we have not on the TRE had an incident that would have been PTC preventable.”

Knowing it will not meet the government’s deadline in December to be fully operational, the TRE plans to ask the federal government for a two-year extension to implement the technology, Lanham said.

But to qualify for the extension, the TRE has to at least have the equipment hardware installed on its trains and track by the end of the year, with the additional time allowed to test the system and learn how to operate it.

A federal report in March said the TRE had not installed any of the hardware, even though the government says that part of the work should already be 85 percent complete.

However, since that report’s release, Lanham said three of the railway’s 17 trains have been equipped with the new technology. And he said he was confident the December deadline to at least install the hardware will be met.

Asked whether there is a concern the TRE could be shut down if the installation deadline is, instead, not met, Lanham said, “Well, you know, nobody is for sure. That could be a possibility.

“But, you know, I’m not in a position to comment on what could happen,” he said.

Lanham stressed that the TRE is running a safe rail line and working hard to install the new technology.

The delays, he said, have been caused by funding challenges and a lack of available contractors, caused by railways across the country rushing to meet the federal government’s deadline.

North Texas commuters, like Lana Douglas, say they are disappointed.

“That’s not something you want to hear, because it’s been around a while,” Douglas said, adding, “They make enough money off of riders every day. So hopefully they get it together.”

NBC’s News4 I-team in Washington, D.C., and NBC Investigators in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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