U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is working to address what he sees as a pressing safety problem with the nation’s railroad system, and he thinks a small mid-valley company may be able to help.
After a 2008 two-train collision in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people and injured more than 100, Congress passed legislation requiring U.S. railroads to install an automated safety system known as positive train control. The law set a Dec. 15, 2015, compliance deadline, but the rail industry still has not fully implemented the system despite a congressional extension.
“Amtrak has totally equipped most of its Class 1 routes, but they’re finding holes in the system,” said DeFazio, who represents Oregon’s 4th District and chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Compliance is much spottier among freight rail lines, and cost-cutting pressure from Wall Street investors is stretching the limits of positive train control technology beyond its design capacity, the congressman added.
“They are running three-mile-long trains, and they’re petitioning to go to one-person crews,” he said.
That’s where Tunnel Radio comes in. Located a few miles east of Corvallis on Highway 20, the 25-employee firm makes radio communications systems for a number of applications, including mining, oil and gas exploration and the railroad industry.
On Friday morning, DeFazio stopped by the company’s office for a tour.
In operation since 1988, Tunnel Radio already has radio antennas and amplifiers installed in every railroad tunnel in the country which can be used as part of a positive train control system, company officials told him.
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But with longer trains, they said, additional installations are needed to ensure that all parts of the system are in continuous communication with one another, not only inside tunnels but also in mountain passes, curvy stretches of track and other areas where the radio signal could be interrupted. Another issue is interoperability of different railroads’ communications networks to improve the safety and reliability of the positive train control system.
Afterward, DeFazio said he was impressed with what he saw.
“These guys have solutions that are cost-effective,” the congressman said.
“They can fill in gaps in the (positive train control) system, and they can make their system compatible with all the different systems that have been installed.”
The push to bring the rail industry into full compliance with automated safety system requirements “absolutely” represents a major business opportunity for Tunnel Radio, according to Patrick Fletchall, the company’s director of business development and engineering.
“You want to have a 100% guarantee that your longest trains are going to be able to communicate safely and effectively 100% of the time, and one of the things we can offer is a very effective communications backbone,” he said.
“I think we have an opportunity to increase Oregon’s economy … and ensure lives at the same time.”