Ten years after Congress first mandated railroads implement a critical safety system known as Positive Train Control, Metra’s BNSF line is finally slated to get the long-overdue, legally-required upgrades that many transportation safety advocates, like Cavanagh Law Group Founding Partner Timothy Cavanagh, have repeatedly pressed for.
Though Metra announced in 2010 its PTC would be operational by 2015, the BNSF line would signal only the first of 11 Metra rail lines to receive the critical upgrades, pushing back Metra’s anticipated operational date to 2020.
Positive Train Control, or PTC, is a high-tech safety system that uses computers, antennas, radios, GPS trackers and more to monitor a train’s location and speed. If there is danger ahead, PTC will alert train operators and even can override the system if train personnel fails to act, effectively having the power to stop or slow down a train on its own.
Safety experts have advocated for PTC for decades. Finally in 2008, Congress ordered all railroads to install and have PTC systems, offering a seven-year deadline of December 31, 2015 for companies to save and prepare for the safety overhauls. When it became clear that most railroads were shamefully unprepared, Congress relented and added a three-year extension to comply, with the option for railroads to apply for an additional two-year extension.
In the meantime, the millions of riders Metra services each week, as well as train commuters around the country, continue to remain at risk of catastrophic accidents and avoidable crashes that have already claimed hundreds of lives and injured thousands more, according to the National Transportation Safety Board
In recent years, PTC could have helped thwart the needless loss of life, or outright prevented, accidents with fatalities in Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
“Everyday our nation’s railroad riders are still one human error away from a catastrophic accident because too many railroads still don’t have this safety system,” Cavanagh said in an op-ed following a deadly train accident in New Jersey. “It is time for our nation to get serious about railroad safety in general and stop putting millions of railroad riders, including more than 300,000 commuters who ride Metra each day at unnecessary risk.”
During his career, Cavanagh has obtained numerous record verdicts and settlements for his clients who have been injured or killed in locomotive accidents, both passenger and freight. Among them, a $55 million railroad crossing verdict recognized by the National Law Journal as one of the top 100 verdicts in the country in 2002 and an Illinois record, and a $9.1 million railroad crossing settlement for a severely injured woman. Cavanagh has also become a nationally recognized advocate for Positive Train Control technology, which would have prevented these accidents.
Cavanagh also obtained a settlement in 2003 for Plainfield resident Kathryn Kuk and her family, who were riding a Metra train on Chicago’s South Side when it derailed, causing debilitating injuries and mental anguish.
Cavanagh Law Group fought to successfully obtain a $1.8 million settlement for the Kuk family from Metra after the commuter rail operator admitted liability. Reports show the train’s engineer failed to stop at a red light as it approached an intersection, barreling down the track 58 mph over the area’s speed limit.
Both Cavanagh and the Kuk family agree the accident, as well as previous train accidents at the same or nearby locations, would have been prevented if Metra had operational PTC systems in place. Fifteen years later, railroads are still struggling to comply with the approaching deadlines.
While Metra’s busiest line will become much safer for the thousands of passengers who rely on it each day once its PTC is in place, the prolonged overall installation and use continues to put riders and the public at risk for grave danger.
“Each year installation is delayed, the risk to rail passengers needlessly increases,” Cavanagh wrote in an op-ed calling for tougher penalties from Congress for railroads that purposely resist meeting the required deadlines, while assisting those that need financial help in order to do so.
“Each death, each injury, and each bit of property destruction that PTC could have been prevented is reason why we have to implement PTC now,” Cavanagh said. “Congress must impose tough penalties and fines on those railroads who can pay and are stalling, and offer help to those who cannot afford it so they can install PTC as soon as possible. What we cannot afford is to add…years of unnecessary risk along our nation’s railroad lines.”