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MTA: LIRR's crash prevention installation slams into problem with improper calibration

In Monday's MTA meeting, the LIRR grilled its contractors on some of the problems they have encountered in completing the project.

More than 4,000 "scanner antennas" recently were recalled

More than 4,000 "scanner antennas" recently were recalled because of a mistake by an MTA contractor. The antennas are part of new federal safety standards. Photo Credit: MTA

A $1 billion project to install federally mandated safety equipment on LIRR trains has been set back because the railroad's contractor installed faulty equipment.

The latest delay in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's effort to install "positive train control," or PTC, technology on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North trains was detailed at a meeting of the MTA's railroad committee in Manhattan on Monday.

PTC uses radio transponders along tracks and antennas installed underneath trains to communicate with each other and automatically stop a train if it is at risk of being involved in an accident. The LIRR has a deadline of 2020 to have the equipment installed.

MTA committee members hammered representatives from its PTC vendor, a joint venture of Bombardier Transportation and Siemens Rail Automation, for a host of problems. Chief among them: more than 4,000 installed "scanner antennas" recently recalled because of a mistake by the contractor, which is being paid nearly a half-billion dollars — of the $1 billion — to design and manufacture the technology.

As a result of the recall, and other new challenges, MTA positive train control project director Deborah Chin said the LIRR and its sister railroad, Metro-North, “do not have a lot of confidence” that the contractor, which operates out of Pittsburgh, will meet its schedule. 

“The railroads are concerned that there may be other equipment issues lurking and not yet known,” said Chin, who called the situation “unacceptable” and urged the contractor to “have the same sense of urgency that the railroads have.”    

Chin did not specify the financial impact of the various problems, but said project officials "anticipate that we will need additional funds to complete the project." 

The federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which stemmed from a Chatsworth, California, commuter train crash that killed 25 people, originally required railroads to have PTC in place by the end of 2015. When it became apparent that most railroads could not meet the deadline, federal lawmakers agreed to push the deadline to 2018, and to 2020 for railroads that met certain minimum milestones by the end of last year, including the LIRR.

Federal officials have said missing a PTC deadline could result in fines of up $27,904 a day for every day a railroad is in violation of the law.

"We're in a very bad place right now," acting MTA Chairman Fernando Ferrer said of the latest PTC setbacks. "We need to be in a much better place very soon."

Bombardier and Siemens notified the railroads last month that the scanner antennas already installed on LIRR and Metro-North trains were being recalled because it was recently discovered that the machine used to test the devices at a manufacturing plant had not been calibrated since 2016. 

Paul Eliea, project director for Siemens, acknowledged at the meeting the mistake was a result of the vendors not following procedure and allowing the same employee who was responsible for preparing the antennas for use also to test them — making for a “single point of failure.”

“This was a mistake in the way that it was set up,” said Eliea, one of several representatives from the joint venture who attended the meeting. “Obviously, this hurts us quite a bit, not only in our reputation, but in the project, as well. We are sorry for it, and we have taken the correct steps to address it.”

Those steps include swapping out all the recalled devices for new ones, a process that will take months.

MTA officials hammered the vendor for other recent obstacles, including a separate recall of about 200 "radio" units manufactured by GE that are installed on trains and along tracks, a lack of PTC experts to assist the railroads in installing the new technology, and problematic software that resulted in the LIRR recently suspending testing of it on the Port Washington branch until March. The vendor also has failed, so far, to design another piece of software that is necessary for the LIRR’s unique switching system.

Ronald L. Birkelbach, of Bombardier, acknowledged the task of installing the new technology across two of the busiest commuter railroads in the United States has been “probably more complex, I suppose, than we initially considered.”

But he assured railroad officials that the vendors remain “completely committed” to meeting the deadlines and have a new "road map" for doing so.

MTA board member Neal Zuckerman, who heads the board's PTC working group, said "talk, unfortunately, is kind of cheap."

"We had a road map before, too," Zuckerman told the vendor representatives. "So the presence of a new road map does not give me anymore confidence."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who helped secure the $1 billion federal loan to fund the PTC project, said Monday that he was "blindsided" by the news of the latest delays and called them "unacceptable."

The LIRR Commuter Council, the state-mandated watchdog group for railroad riders, said Monday it was "very concerned" about the latest developments.

“Despite the fact that PTC is an unfunded federal mandate, it must be completed to ensure the safety of riders," council chairman Mark Epstein said in a statement. "The LIRRCC demands that corrective action be taken immediately, and any costs relating to same be borne by those responsible."

Scanner antennas recalled

More than 4,000 "scanner antennas" recently were recalled because of a mistake by an MTA contractor, Bombardier Transportation and Siemens Rail Automation, of Pittsburgh. The undercar scanner antenna communicates with transponders along the tracks to allow the train's onboard equipment to know speed limits of given stretches of tracks.

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