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Freight Railroads In Northwest Unlikely To Meet Deadline To Install Safety Upgrade

Freight railroads in the Northwest appear unlikely to meet an end-of-the-year deadline to install the type of system safety regulators say could have prevented Tuesday's deadly Amtrak crash in Philadelphia.

The technology is designed to automatically stop or slow a a speeding train when it senses an accident or collision could occur. It will also be programmed to know the speed limit on every stretch of rail, so if a train is going too fast for whatever reason, it will initiate automatic braking.

A deadly commuter rail accident back in 2008 in Southern California prompted Congress to require rail safety upgrades. Passenger lines and the larger freight railroads have to install computerized train management systems that combine track sensors, GPS, radio transmitters on locomotives and wayside antennas.

BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas in Seattle said his railroad can't promise on-time completion of a very expensive and complicated system.

"We are certainly making great strides out here in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “In terms of implementation, much of the technology is in place. But there is testing (to do). We still have some corridors that we have to finalize work on."

The Association of American Railroads was more blunt, saying Congress will need to provide a deadline extension to the major railroads.

Commuter rail operators Sound Transit in the Seattle area and TriMet/Portland & Western Railroad in suburban Portland said in federal filings that they will meet the year-end deadline to install what is officially known as "positive train control.”

Union Pacific Railroad said it is on track to implement the collision avoidance system in Southern California by the end of 2015. Spokesman Francisco Castillo said the technology roll out will expand from there pending favorable results, first to Northern California and then onward to the Pacific Northwest.

Castillo said needed signaling upgrades have been completed on over 70 percent of Union Pacific's route miles nationwide.

During a quarterly earnings conference call with analysts last month, the railroad's executives said despite "a good faith effort" Union Pacific will not achieve full implementation of positive train control by the fast approaching deadline. They are hopeful that Congress will pass an extension. The railroad told Wall Street analysts it has spent more than $1.7 billion to date on the mandate.

Melonas said BNSF alone has already spent $1.23 billion on development and deployment of positive train control on its mainlines nationwide.

Sound Transit and Portland & Western/TriMet awarded contracts to equip locomotives and make track and signal upgrades for positive train control in 2013 and 2014. For Oregon commuters, that electronic safety net to weed out human error applies to the Westside Express Service rail corridor between Wilsonville and Beaverton.

Back in 2008, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein was the chief sponsor of the rail crash-avoidance requirement and is still working on the issue in the U.S. Senate today. Recognizing the seeming inevitability of missed deadlines, Feinstein introduced legislation last month to allow railroads to apply for one-year extensions through 2018.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.