SEPTA shows off Positive Train Control at test track [video]

 SEPTA demonstrated their new Positive Train Control Wednesday at their training facility in Malvern. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA demonstrated their new Positive Train Control Wednesday at their training facility in Malvern. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA showed members of Congress and the media its new automatic braking system — Positive Train Control.

The safety system would most likely have prevented the fatal Amtrak crash at Frankford Junction in May, and SEPTA says it will be installed on all regional rail trains by the end of the year.

At SEPTA’s test track in Frazier, Chester County, with four members of Congress in the conductor’s cab Wednesday, SEPTA crews showed how PTC works — how it hits the air brakes when a train goes over the speed limit.

When the train goes over the posted limit, it starts beeping, to tell the engineer to slow down. Moments later, the air brakes kick in with a loud whoosh.

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“It will just sputter through until it comes to a complete stop just like the anti-lock brakes on a car,” said SEPTA’s Dennis McAnulla.

Think of PTC as an invisible foot stepping the brake of your car when you are going too fast. The Frazier test track isn’t that long, so SEPTA was not able to get the demonstration train up to top speeds. It slowed from about 20 miles an hour down to a dead stop very quickly. SEPTA says the top posted speed limit on the Regional Rail system is 70 miles an hour, though not that many trains get moving that quickly with some many stops in close succession.

The equipment isn’t cheap, $328 million to install on every train in the regional rail fleet.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, is impressed that PTC also can help improve safety for staff working on SEPTA tracks. They will get special armbands that will buzz, alerting them when a train is coming their way.

“If you think about being at a restaurant and they give you those little things in your hand and it makes a sensation to get seated, it’s the same kind of information that is transmitted to workers along the railroad bed,” Fattah said.

SEPTA is one of the few railroads in the country that says it’s on track to install PTC by the end of the year. Amtrak is also pledging to get the safety system running on the Northeast Corridor by the deadline.


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