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LIRR positive train control system won't be in place for at least 2 years, MTA officials say

An eastbound LIRR train passes under the Ellison

An eastbound LIRR train passes under the Ellison Avenue Bridge as a car drives over in Westbury Monday, April 6, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

The train accident prevention technology that investigators say would have prevented last week's fatal Amtrak derailment is still more than two years away from being in place on the Long Island Rail Road, officials said.

It's impossible to get the safety technology up and running much quicker, MTA officials said, and the 2015 federal deadline to install positive train control systems on the LIRR -- the nation's largest commuter railroad -- is unreasonable and unrealistic.

"The deadline is irrelevant. It's technologically impossible to meet," MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, said. "If Superman came down and tried to implement it, it can't be done."

In a February report, the MTA estimated that the installation of the system on the LIRR and its sister railroad, Metro-North, will be 90 percent complete by December 2017, at a total cost of $968 million.

The U.S. Safety Improvement Act of 2008, drafted after a Los Angeles collision between a commuter train and freight train that killed 25 people, requires all railroads in the country to have positive train control systems in place by December 2015.

The smart transportation technology uses radio transponders installed on tracks and in trains to automatically slow down or stop a train if it's going too fast, about to hit another train, or violates a signal -- effectively removing the possibility of human error in several potentially deadly situations.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said the system would have prevented Tuesday's Amtrak derailment, in which eight passengers died after their train traveled through a curve at more than twice the speed limit. It would have also prevented a similar 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx that killed four people, NTSB investigators have said.

Although the law had been on the books for five years, it was the Metro-North derailment that led to lawmakers putting added pressure on the MTA to expedite installation of the positive train control system.

MTA sought shield from law

Before the crash, MTA officials spent years looking for an exemption from the law, or at least an extension of the deadline -- reasoning that the new system was still unproven, and that the LIRR's decades-old automatic speed control system, which slows down trains to avoid collisions, had already proven to be reliable and effective.

Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has pushed for the completion of positive train control's installation on the MTA's railroads after the Metro-North derailment, in 2010 held a news conference with MTA officials to say that forcing the LIRR to install the technology, which would cost more than a half-billion dollars, "at a time of fiscal austerity . . . makes no sense."

"There's no denying that the price tag on the project would drown the already struggling MTA," Schumer said in 2010.

On Saturday, a Schumer spokesman said his comments at the time reflected the fact that the LIRR had already invested millions in its automatic speed control system, and that the agency was facing layoffs and service cuts in 2010.

Five months after the Metro-North derailment, the MTA board approved spending an extra $11 million to expedite installation of the system on the LIRR and Metro-North, shaving nearly two years off the expected completion date.

"It's a very, very complicated situation. I know people would love to see us say it would be done tomorrow, but unfortunately things don't happen like that," Pally said. "We're doing it as fast as we can."

Railroads share tracksAmong the hurdles the MTA has faced in completing its positive train control project include: finding a system that would work seamlessly with those of other railroads that share the same tracks, including Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and freight rail systems; installing electric signal systems throughout the un-signalized eastern portion of the LIRR, known as "dark territory," on top of which the new technology must overlay; and having to take about a thousand LIRR train cars out of service to fit them with transponders. Railroads also have to acquire radio frequency spectrum, a process that takes time.

"There are only so many companies that provide that type of technology and equipment. They are being obviously overwhelmed with all the railroads and the freight railroads, passenger railroads," LIRR President Patrick A. Nowakowski said last week. "It's everybody trying to implement it at the same point in time. So there's been a huge demand to do that, and that's what we're all struggling with to try and get the project done."

Another challenge that the LIRR, and most other railroads in the United States, have faced in meeting the federal mandate is coming up with the money to pay for the system. Although the cost of installing the technology on all railroads is estimated at more than $10 billion, the 2008 federal law provided just $250 million in total grant money to help fund the upgrades.

Challenges recognized

In a statement, Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said that while the system (PTC) remains a "game changer for safety," the agency also recognizes many railroads are "struggling both financially and technically to meet the deadline for PTC implementation at the end of this year."

To that end, the Federal Railroad Administration has twice asked Congress for authority to "better manage the deployment" of PTC and for more funding to help railroads.

"While we wait for Congress to act, we will continue to work with all of our stakeholders to ensure that railroads have PTC in use across the country as quickly as possible," Thompson said.

The federal agency did last month approve a $1 billion loan to the MTA to help cover the cost of installing PTC on the LIRR and Metro-North.

"This is an unfunded mandate on, basically, new concept, new technology. For public agencies, it's difficult to fund those kind of efforts," said Stephen Sullivan, managing director of R.L. Banks & Associates, an Arlington, Virginia, railroad consulting firm.

Sullivan said that in 2012, when superstorm Sandy further set back some railroads whose track infrastructure was damaged by the storm, it seemed likely that Congress would grant an extension of its deadline. But any hope of lenience was lost after the 2013 Metro-North derailment, he said.

Now, as far behind its deadline as it is, Sullivan said the LIRR is actually much further ahead than most railroads.

"The Long Island Rail Road is probably focusing on a timeline that seems to be the right timeline for this technology," Sullivan said. "They're not going to try and rush something until they're sure it's safe and operates as intended. This is something that you're not going to cut corners on."

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