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Train-stopping system misses mark in simulated tests on LIRR

An image from a YouTube video published by

An image from a YouTube video published by the MTA that shows how positive train control would automatically slow a train. The federally mandated technology failed in 16 out of 52 simulated factory tests on the LIRR's Port Washington branch. Credit: MTA

Federally required crash prevention technology failed in some simulated tests done by the Long Island Rail Road, setting back its efforts to have the system called positive train control in place throughout the LIRR by the end of the year, MTA officials said.

The $1 billion system’s inability to do precisely what it’s supposed to — automatically bring to a halt a train that violates a stop signal — has raised new concerns about the program for MTA officials. They learned about the test failures during a Monday meeting of the agency’s railroad committee.

According to MTA documents, the LIRR system failed 16 out of 52 factory tests done in early March using a computerized simulation of the new technology, with the railroad’s Port Washington branch as a model. Although the MTA’s positive train control contractor continues to investigate the cause of the failures, MTA officials said they believe it stems from the complexity and density of the LIRR — the busiest commuter railroad in the United States.

MTA officials said the recent LIRR test failures have set back their efforts by another two months.

“Most of the other railroads are nowhere near the size or complexity of the Long Island Rail Road or Metro-North,” said John Kesich, senior vice president for operations at Metro-North, the LIRR’s sister MTA railroad and partner in its PTC project.

The tests, done in conjunction with Metro-North, use PTC software to run scenarios using the parameters of the Port Washington line.

MTA officials said the test failures did not come as a surprise, as the agency expected to encounter issues as it began testing the new technology, which is being custom-made for the two railroads. Project director Debbie Chin said while some tests have been put on hold until a resolution is found, other tests are ongoing. “We’re not paralyzed,” Chin said.

Positive train control, also known as PTC, works by having radio transponders installed on tracks and on trains communicate with one another to automatically slow down or stop a train if it’s going too fast, is about to hit another train or violates a signal. National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said PTC could have prevented several fatal train accidents in recent years, including the December 2013 derailment of a Metro-North train in the Bronx that killed four people.

The U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, passed after a deadly commuter train crash in California, mandates that all railroads have positive train control in place by Dec. 31, 2018, or risk heavy federal fines.

The federal Government Accountability Office last month issued a report saying that as many as two-thirds of all commuter railroads in the United States — including the LIRR — are at risk of missing the deadline.

With the dimming prospect of having PTC fully in place throughout the LIRR, and Metro-North, by the end of the year, MTA officials said they are shifting their focus to meeting minimum standards to be compliant with the federal law.

If the MTA can complete installation of PTC hardware, train all its employees, and have the technology operational on at least one railroad branch, it can receive two-year extension to complete the project, the officials said.

The MTA will pay for the PTC technology using a $1 billion federal loan.

Metro-North president Catherine Rinaldi said Monday she remains confident the MTA will achieve that goal. Both railroads’ PTC efforts are about 70 percent complete, MTA officials said.

“We fully expect to be compliant with the federal requirements by the end of the year. That has not wavered,” Rinaldi said. “It is our highest priority, and we’re killing ourselves to get it done.”

Despite the reassurances, the latest hurdle in installing the life-saving technology troubled some MTA officials, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s representative on the MTA Board, Scott Rechler, who called the most recent setback “worrisome.”

“I know that they are making a herculean effort. But their [project leaders’] confidence is still predicated on being able to work through these tests that have challenges,” Rechler said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s where it’s hard for me to judge. Is this something that is normal and their confidence is warranted that they’ll figure this out in a reasonable time? Or is this just them being hopeful?”

Board member Neal Zuckerman said he is less concerned about meeting a federal deadline than he is about “having a system that works for riders.”

“It is better to have this right than fast,” Zuckerman said. “A nonfunctioning system is not worthwhile. It’s a waste of money and time and ultimately will not serve the needs of the riders.”


2008: Following a commuter train crash in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 people, the federal government passes the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act, which requires all railroads in the nation to have positive train control technology installed by 2015.

2013: The MTA awards a $428 million contract a joint venture of Bombardier Transportation/Siemens Rail Automation to design and install positive train control technology on the LIRR and Metro-North.

2015: With few railroads on pace to meet the original 2015 deadline, the federal government extends the deadline to have PTC in place to Dec. 31, 2018.

2018: After falling further behind in its efforts to have PTC fully in place by the end of the year, MTA officials shift their focus to meeting minimum federal compliance standards, which include having all hardware installed, employees trained and having the technology operational on some portion of its railroads.

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