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LIRR balks at cost of new mandated control system

A federal mandate to install a control system that automatically stops errant trains will cost the Long Island Rail Road at least $324 million and displace capital projects such as a proposed double track from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma, the railroad's president, Helena Williams, said Monday.

Williams told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Long Island Committee that the railroad has registered objections over implementation of the Rail Safety Improvement Act, passed in 2008 after the head-on collision of a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., killed 25 people. The act provides grants totaling $250 million nationwide.

The law requires all commuter and most freight railroads to install Positive Train Control, an automated system designed to prevent collisions and derailments - by Dec. 31, 2015.

"There's no question that it does provide an additional level of security," Williams said in an interview after the meeting.

But the LIRR already has a train control system on 65 percent of its rails, she said, including on all of the railroad's high-volume routes. The current system automatically slows trains to 15 miles per hour when they pass certain signals, she said.

The railroad has asked the Federal Railroad Administration to recognize the LIRR's cab signal system as an alternative to the train-stopping Positive Train Control, Williams said.

The railroad administration did not immediately respond to messages late Monday afternoon.

Williams said she also has met with members of the New York congressional delegation and asked them to offer amendments to the law to give railroads more time to investigate alternative technologies.

The tight deadline will prevent the railroad from exploring other options, she said, and could lead to inflated prices as every railroad in the country scrambles to install the same technology.

"The time frame is extremely aggressive," she said.

The Positive Train Control system would cost as much as $399 million if the railroad isn't granted an exemption for the low-volume route between Ronkonkoma and Greenport, Williams said.

"We've already made a tremendous investment, spending millions of dollars to buy an automatic track control system" that covers 316 miles of track, Williams said.

The LIRR's cab signal system, which is intended to prevent accidents by automatically slowing trains when they pass certain signals, dates to the 1950s.

LIRR railroad officials were spurred to action on that system after two accidents in 1950 - in Rockville Centre and Kew Gardens - killed a total of 110 people.

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