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Safety Technology On SMART Trains Could Have Prevented Amtrak Disaster

PETALUMA (KPIX 5) -- The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit or SMART Train is the first commuter rail system in the country to be built with Positive Train Control, a type of technology that can automatically stop a train before a crash.

The Amtrak crash in Washington State might have been avoided if the train had been equipped with this kind of automated control system.

"If our train approaches a curve at a much higher speed than it's supposed to, Positive Train Control shuts us down and brings the train to a stop," explained SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.

The SMART GM Mansourian says the transit agency spent four years and $50 million creating a custom Positive Train Control or PTC system so their locomotives will not operate if drivers don't follow specific guidelines.

"So, effectively, it's like an automated kill switch if it doesn't follow the criteria you're talking about. A very expensive and very long-designed kill switch," said Mansourian.

The SMART system includes fiber optic lines alongside its 43 miles of track and signal relays on the roadway and onboard the trains.

The federal government has been trying to mandate PTC nationwide for years now. The current deadline is the end of 2018.

But Mansourian says the complexity of such systems makes them hugely expensive.  He believes creating a system for an operation as large as Amtrak will cost billions.

"For us, we're a brand new railroad, so it was much easier to do it right from the beginning," said Mansourian. "For others, who have to go back and retrofit while they're running their freight or passenger system. It's double headaches."

The section of track in Washington had reportedly been fitted with PTC equipment, but the system was not yet operational. Mansourian says any train operator waiting to get started is in for a rude awakening.

"So if people just woke up today and say, 'Gee, I better comply with PTC,' then they're gonna be very, very much surprised," said Mansourian.

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