The Ottumwa Courier

AP National

September 3, 2013

INFLUENCE GAME: Train safety move delayed decades

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.

"It absolutely has to be done, and the sooner the better," said Frank Kohler, a former critical care nurse who was a passenger on the commuter train. He awakened an hour and a half after the accident, on the ground with his head split open. He's unable to work and suffers from a low tolerance for stress, headaches and memory loss.

"I wish (the safety systems) were in place five or six years ago," Kohler said in an interview. "It would have helped me."

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. The NTSB has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage over the past decade that officials say could have been prevented had the safety systems been in place.

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