Long Island Rail Road officials said they did not set aside enough space to fit federally mandated crash-prevention equipment into the railroad's next generation of trains, an error that could increase costs of the new trains and delay their arrival.
The railroad's specifications for 256 new M9 electric trains -- set to roll out in 2018 -- designated 8 cubic feet per car for positive train control, or PTC. But LIRR officials recently acknowledged that the hardware requires 17 cubic feet per car -- more than twice the allotted amount.
Jim Allen, LIRR director of new rolling stock, acknowledged at a meeting last month of the MTA board's LIRR committee that the miscalculation was a "significant issue."
The federal requirement for the technology was already in place when the LIRR completed its specifications for the new cars, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said. But the MTA did not know at the time the specific dimensions of the PTC equipment and guessed at the required space, he said.
"The cars came first. We didn't know what the PTC design was, so we had to assume a square footage," Nowakowski said. "It will get done. PTC will work."
LIRR officials said they are working with train car manufacturer Kawasaki Rail Car, of Yonkers, on potential fixes.
"While the solution may result in a change order, it is too early in the process to speculate about a potential solution or the potential extra cost," Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Salvatore Arena said in a statement. "Of course, the PTC space issue could delay the M-9 project; but this is unlikely."
'Cramped for space'
The issue does not affect the LIRR's existing fleet of 836 electric M7 trains, which will be retrofitted with the necessary PTC equipment. However, new trains are supposed to have the equipment seamlessly integrated into their design.
Kawasaki Rail Car, which won the $600 million contract to design and build the new cars, did not respond to a request for comment. The company is scheduled to complete a final design for the new trains by the first quarter of 2016.
"We put a lot of things in the design of the new M9s -- a lot of additions, such as more seats, CCTV [closed-circuit televisions], PTC, multimedia," Allen said. "We're just cramped for space."
The revelation of the problem appeared to surprise some MTA board members, who questioned how the problem could have happened when the MTA knew since 2008 that it would have to install positive train control systems on all trains. The LIRR ordered the new trains in 2013.
"We have to know that PTC is compatible with these cars before we go down these roads," said board member Jonathan Ballan, who urged the railroad to find a quick and definitive solution to avoid "massive" cost overruns and delays.
"It's got to fit. It's got to work -- not only theoretically, but in actuality," Ballan said.
The LIRR said it plans to begin testing PTC on segments of its Port Washington and Babylon lines within the next three months.
Positive train control is required by the end of this year on all railroads by the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, enacted after a Los Angeles train collision killed 25 people. The technology removes the possibility of human error in several potentially deadly situations.
Radio transponders installed on tracks and on trains communicate with each other to automatically slow down or stop a train if it is going too fast, is about to hit another train, or violates a signal.
PTC could save lives
National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said PTC could have prevented several fatal accidents, including the May derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia and the December 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx.
Although LIRR officials said the space issue on the new trains will not affect the timeline for installation of PTC, the project is facing unrelated delays that could push back progress by several months. However, the LIRR remains confident that it will meet its goal to have the system largely functional by December 2017.
The Federal Railroad Administration is considering extending the deadline for all railroads to have PTC in place.
Stephen Sullivan, managing director of R.L. Banks & Associates, an Arlington, Virginia, railroad consulting firm, said the LIRR's space issue with its new cars is "exactly the kind of problem you run into" when railroads are under the gun to meet unrealistic expectations.
"If you have more time . . . there would be more than a limited number of solutions," Sullivan said. "Rushing this along limits your options, and it limits the creativity in developing . . . the technology."