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Commuter railroads, including LIRR, making progress with PTC

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train passes

An eastbound Long Island Rail Road train passes the Floral Park LIRR station on April 12, 2017. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Commuter railroads nationally, including the Long Island Rail Road, have made significant progress toward a year-end federal deadline to install positive train control technology, but major challenges remain, according to a national transit advocacy group.

The American Public Transportation Association, or APTA, on Tuesday gave an update on the progress made so far by the 29 commuter railroads required to install positive train control, or PTC, which is a signaling and communications technology that aims to prevent train accidents.

According to APTA, American commuter railroads have already acquired 91 percent of the radio frequency needed for PTC, trained 74 percent of all employees, completed 78 percent of back office control systems, and installed 85 percent of necessary equipment on trains and 79 percent of necessary equipment along tracks.

Under the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, all railroads are required to have completed all those milestones, and have PTC in operation in a portion of their system by Dec. 31, 2018, or risk heavy federal fines.

“There’s no doubt that the industry’s full effort and intent is to meet these milestones,” APTA president and chief operating officer Paul Skoutelas said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “The commuter rail industry has made great progress in installing positive train control. This has been no easy feat. There are considerable challenges, both technical and financial.”

LIRR officials have said they have encountered a range of issues in their PTC installation project, which is about 80 percent complete. The railroad said it expects to be in compliance with minimum federal PTC standards by the end of the year, but may seek a 2-year extension to complete installation throughout the LIRR.

LIRR spokeswoman Sarah Armaghan said the railroad remains “committed to outfitting our system with PTC as we work toward full federal compliance by the end of 2018.”

Skoutelas noted that while the total price tag for all commuter railroads to install PTC may exceed $4 billion, the federal government, to date, has provided only $272 million in grant funding, with another $250 million expected this year. The federal government did give the MTA a $1 billion loan to pay for PTC installation on the LIRR and sister railroad Metro-North, but Skoutelas pointed out that the agencies “need to repay those loans.”

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Marc Willis said, over the last ten years, the federal government “has awarded approximately $2.6 billion in grants and loans to support PTC implementation to at least 37 commuter and freight rail recipients.”

Other challenges for the rail roads, Skoutelas said, include: a very limited number of qualified PTC vendors “simultaneously in demand” by both commuter and freight railroads nationally; software problems that continue to emerge, and the difficulty of installing and testing PTC equipment while minimizing disruptions to scheduled train service.

Leaders of other commuter railroads on the media call said they sympathized with the enormous task before the LIRR, the busiest commuter railroad in the country.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, general manager Jeffrey Knueppel said he believed the LIRR “is making very strong progress” despite running a “very, very dense” operation.

SEPTA, which transports about 123,000 passengers daily, has already completed its PTC project. The LIRR carries about three times as many riders each day.

“Each PTC story is different, but certainly the Long Island Rail Road has had a lot of challenges to overcome,” Knueppel said.

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