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Railroads face challenges implementing safety technology

The Amtrak derailment has spurred questions and concerns about the safety, funding and technology of the country's railroads. Judy Woodruff interviews Sarah Feinberg of the Federal Railroad Administration about whether there has been enough focus on safety for our railroads.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Amtrak derailment this week has set in motion a series of questions and examinations about safety systems for the country's railroads, and whether there's been adequate funding and necessary technology committed to doing so.

    Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured when the train left the tracks in Philadelphia at a speed of more than 100 miles an hour.

    Sarah Feinberg is acting administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration. It's an agency within the Department of Transportation that promotes safe rail transportation.

    Ms. Feinberg, welcome to the NewsHour.

    A lot of conversation, as we were saying, about whether this accident could have been prevented with some sort of safety mechanism. Is there a mechanism or a device or a system that could have prevented it?

  • SARAH FEINBERG, Acting Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration:

    Well, thanks for having me, Judy.

    You know, we don't know the cause of the accident yet. The NTSB is the lead investigative agency into what caused this accident. We will know more soon. But to the extent that speed could have been a factor here or was a factor here, we know that positive train control can have a huge impact on speed and can really keep trains from going over speed.

    So it's a really important technology that needs to get implemented along the country's rail system.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And why isn't it implemented? If it's known that it could make a difference in a situation like this, why isn't it in all passenger trains?

  • SARAH FEINBERG:

    Well, the Congress passed a law requiring it to be implemented by December 31 of 2015, so the end of this year.

    Amtrak has said that they reach that — that they will meet that deadline. Other commuter railroads and freight rails have said that they will have trouble meeting that deadline. It's an incredibly expensive and complicated technology, but it is a game-changer in terms of safety, and so we are really pushing railroads to work as hard as they possibly can to meet that deadline.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, it's our understanding from reports today, including one in The New York Times, that part of the issue is that the railroads have not had access to broadband wireless technology that would enable them to get this system in place. And that's something that Congress initially denied them access to.

    Explain that for us.

  • SARAH FEINBERG:

    That's right.

    Well, there are a lot of really complicated factors here and a lot of challenges facing the railroads as they attempt to implement this technology. One, as you mentioned, is spectrum. So, the railroads literally have to buy spectrum, sometimes from spectrum hoarders or spectrum speculators.

    They need that spectrum in order for the technology to literally run along the rails and work. But another challenge is expense. It's a very complicated technology. It requires literally the train to be able to talk to the wayside detector and the wayside detector to be able to talk back and control the speed of the train, make the train take actions if the engineer isn't taking appropriate actions.

    So there are a lot of challenges facing the railroads in implementing this technology, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be pushing them to do it anyway.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, as someone who is — I know you have only been in this position a short time.

    Americans, I think, are familiar with how much the government — lengths the government goes to make sure through the FAA and other agencies that flying is safe. Do you think, by contrast, that there hasn't been enough focus on safety in our railroads?

  • SARAH FEINBERG:

    Well, I'm so glad you brought that up, Judy, because I think about that often.

    It is incredibly safe to fly in an airplane. It's also incredibly safe to ride on a train. You know, 300 million Americans have traveled the Northeast Corridor in recent years. It's incredibly safe to be on a train. But, that said, the individuals that were on this train on Tuesday night put their lives in the hands of an engineer that they have to assume will never make a mistake, will not have a medical event, will not have some sort of issue in the cab.

    And rail travel is incredibly safe, but why would we not implement a technology that can take a human factor or human error off the table?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, as we understand it, only one person required to be in that as engineer, whereas, on an airplane, it's two people.

  • SARAH FEINBERG:

    Well, and there's a debate that goes back and forth on that. There is one theory if you add more people to the cab, that can possibly distract the engineer.

    You also don't want personal conversations happening in the cab, when an engineer needs to be really, solely focused on operating that train. So that debate goes back and forth, but it's something that we're constantly looking at the FRA.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Sarah Feinberg, acting administration — administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration, we thank you very much.

  • SARAH FEINBERG:

    Thank you, Judy.

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