The implementation of the system known as positive train control was postponed by Congress, which extended a deadline to have the systems in place from 2015 until December of this year and left open the possibility of an additional extension to 2020.
But Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao has warned the railroad industry that it is expected to meet the deadline at the end of this year.
"We are concerned that many of the nation's railroads must greatly accelerate their efforts to achieve the congressionally mandated requirements," Chao said in a letter addressed to the executive officer of each railroad.
A progress report released by the Federal Railroad Administration in September showed that some major railroads — notably BNSF Railway — had completed installation of onboard hardware and trackside sensors and had trained crews to use them. Other big railroads, and some transit systems, lagged well behind.
Chao told the railroad executives of the need "to help create an increased level of urgency to underscore the imperative of meeting existing expectations for rolling out this critical rail-safety technology."
The FRA said that eight of the 37 railroads required to install the systems have fully complied with the congressional mandate. Congress has granted the FRA leeway to approve extensions to 2020 for railroads that apply, provided that they have the necessary hardware in place.
There have been dozens of train wrecks that might have been avoided were positive train control in place, but the Amtrak crashes in Washington state and Philadelphia stand in high relief because of the fatalities and mass injuries. In both cases, an engineer allowed the train to enter a curve at more than twice the posted speed limit.
Three people were killed last month and more than 100 injured in DuPont, Wash., when one of two engines and 12 cars derailed, many of the rail cars tumbling onto a busy interstate highway below.
Installing positive train control is a daunting task for the railroads, requiring that hardware be added in 25,000 locomotives and sensors be placed along the railway beds. The payoff is that it will help prevent train collisions and high-speed derailments.
When the industry appealed to Congress for relief from the looming deadline in 2015, it said it had already invested more than $6.5 billion, anticipated a total price tag of $10.6 billion and needed additional time to put the system in place.
If the Trump administration remains steadfast, and Congress does not again buckle to railroad industry pressure, the year-end deadline and possible fines for those not in compliance will bring closure to a long and arduous debate over railroad safety.
The National Transportation Safety Board says it has investigated 146 rail accidents since 1969 that positive train control could have prevented, with a toll of 291 people killed and 6,574 injured.
Congress was debating the need for positive train control in 2008. With their lobbyists in overdrive, the railroads might have persuaded lawmakers to delay the mandate. But in the middle of that debate, a head-on train collision in California killed 25 people and injured more than 100. The NTSB said positive train control could have prevented the accident, and that moved Congress to settle on Dec. 31, 2015, as its deadline.
The Association of American Railroads, a trade group for the freight lines, has said that member railroads expect to meet the current deadline.
A number of transit agencies, which rely on passenger fares and government subsidies, are among those furthest behind in meeting the deadline, according to the September FRA report. While a number of them, including the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and Denver's regional transit system are in full compliance, others, such as Maryland's MARC line, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit appear well short of meeting the deadline.
A New Jersey Transit train crashed into a Hoboken station in 2016, killing a woman on the platform and injuring more than 100 passengers. While the NTSB final analysis of that wreck has not been issued, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in the aftermath of the crash asked whether positive train control would have brought to train to a halt after the engineer apparently dozed off at the controls.