Workers install a radio transponder for the positive train control...

Workers install a radio transponder for the positive train control system on a Long Island Rail Rail Road track. The transponders on trains and tracks communicate with each other to automatically slow down or stop a train if it's going too fast, is about to hit another train, or violates a signal. Credit: MTA

The LIRR has begun installing some components of a new $1 billion crash-prevention system before a full design is complete in an effort to meet a 2018 federal deadline, railroad officials said.

Designing and installing positive train control technology at the same time raises the possibility of having to undo and redo some work. But, under pressure to have the entire project finished by December 2018 or face fines of up to $25,000 a day, LIRR officials said they don’t have a moment to waste.

“We need all the time we can get,” Deborah Chin, executive director of positive train control for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said at a recent presentation to MTA board members.

MTA officials say their challenges include the limited availability of vendors and their own resources. These issues are shared by the entire railroad industry. But some railroads are far ahead of the LIRR, which still has about 70 percent of the project left to complete.

Positive train control, or PTC, is intended to remove the possibility of human error in potentially deadly situations. Some experts have said PTC could have prevented several train accidents in the Northeast in recent years.

They include the December 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx that killed four people, the May 2015 derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that killed eight people, the September NJ Transit train crash in Hoboken that killed one woman standing at a station platform, and last month’s LIRR derailment near New Hyde Park that injured 33 people.

PTC works by having radio transponders that are installed on tracks and on trains communicate with each other to automatically slow down or stop a train if it’s going too fast, is about to hit another train or violates a signal.

The U.S. Safety Improvement Act of 2008, drafted after a Los Angeles collision between a commuter train and a freight train killed 25 people, required all railroads to have PTC in place by December 2015. But with most railroads making relatively little progress by late last year, the federal government agreed to push the deadline to 2018.

LIRR, Metro-North on pace

The MTA’s two commuter railroads, the LIRR and Metro-North, have said they remain on schedule to meet the 2018 deadline. Chin said the two agencies are now looking at ways to deal with potential delays.

Chief among those risks are delays in the design process, such as completing the computer software necessary to operate PTC. The system’s developer, a joint venture of Siemens and Bombardier, does not expect to deliver a final design until the second quarter of next year, MTA officials said.

Because the delays could “impact timely completion” of the project, the LIRR is moving ahead with the installation of some hardware components of PTC, including onboard computers needed in 580 trains, radio transponders along 321 miles of tracks and 113 antenna poles, according to project documents. Typically, that work would not begin until after the design is complete, project officials said.

“It’s the only way we can meet the schedule, because there isn’t enough time in the schedule to let us do things in a way where we finish the design,” MTA board member Susan Metzger said. “The risk is something in the design requires us to change what we’ve already installed. That’s a clear, clear risk.”

Project officials have said the risks associated with beginning PTC installation without a final design in place are relatively low, but it is possible that workers would have to reprogram hundreds of radio transponders along the LIRR’s tracks — extra work that could further burden the LIRR’s PTC installation workforce and add costs to the $968 million project, which is being funded through a federal loan.

“It’s probably obvious, but I’ll state the obvious. I think they hung back as long as they could to get the design done before the installation,” MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast said. “But there comes a point in time where the two lines cross, and if you wait any longer, you will not meet the December 2018 deadline.”

Challenges ahead

Officials with the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit trade group, defended the LIRR’s decision to move ahead with installing an incomplete product, and said many railroads across the United States are under similar pressures, in part because there are relatively few vendors of PTC equipment.

“You can’t walk into a Home Depot and buy a PTC kit,” said Bill Terry, APTA senior legislative representative. “You can’t install what hasn’t been developed yet.”

But Andrew Maloney, a Manhattan personal-injury attorney who specializes in public transportation liability cases, said the limited progress made by many railroads, including the LIRR, is the result of “foot dragging” until a rash of accidents forced them to take the federal mandate seriously.

MTA officials disputed the assertion that they wasted time, saying that the first years after the federal mandate was issued were spent on important and time-consuming tasks, like finding a developer, getting funding and securing radio spectrum from the FCC.

Before the 2013 Metro-North derailment near the Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx, MTA officials spent years looking for an exemption from the law, or at least an extension of the deadline. Their reasoning was 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 proved reliable and effective.

“They just didn’t want to do it and, I guess, thought this problem would go away. And, of course, it hasn’t,” said Maloney, who acknowledged that the MTA has “picked up the pace” in recent years. “They’ve realized now they have no excuses. The next time a big accident happens, they’ll be called to the carpet.”

Other obstacles are standing in the way of the LIRR’s progress in making PTC operational in the next two years, project officials said.

The late design process could result in delays in the manufacturing and delivery of some equipment. And required testing of the systems “may strain current . . . resources and track availability.” MTA officials said they are evaluating the possibility of taking some tracks out of service temporarily to perform those tests.

Maryanne Roberts‎, spokeswoman for Bombardier Transportation, said the lack of “off-the-shelf” PTC technology and the need for the system to work seamlessly with those of other railroads are some of the reasons why the design process has fallen behind.

“The complexity of the design and the coordination required among the various railroads and transit technology providers has caused the design to take longer than originally anticipated,” Roberts said.

Despite the challenges, the LIRR has said it has made considerable progress in getting PTC in place, having already acquired the necessary radio spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission, installing 971 transponders along the LIRR’s tracks, and training railroad employees.

“We have thousands more pieces of equipment to deploy, but we are pleased to be moving forward with the installation at this pace,” LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said Thursday.

Between the LIRR and Metro-North, the MTA has to install more than 9,000 transponders on tracks and 1,000 communications units on trains — all of which have to work with other railroads that operate on the same tracks, including Amtrak. Project officials have estimated the LIRR’s PTC project is about 30 percent complete.

PTC is already operational in Los Angeles’ Metrolink and along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. And, as of June, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston and the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia had installed the necessary hardware on all or most of their trains. The LIRR had completed “0 percent” of its train installations by the same time, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

“The official deadline for Positive Train Control may be years away, but the urgency for railroads to activate it is now. Every day that passes without PTC, we risk adding another preventable accident to a list that is already too long,” FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said in August.

Stephen Sullivan, managing director of R.L. Banks & Associates, an Arlington, Virginia, railroad consulting firm, said the “slow learning process” among some railroads was due to legitimate concerns over the high cost of the technology and uncertainty over the emerging technology.

“I don’t think the industry ever took it as not being serious,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want another accident like Spuyten Duyvil or North Philadelphia or Hoboken. I think everybody’s really focused on eliminating those. If it hadn’t been the top priority, it’s the top priority on railroads now.”

The MTA’s Positive Train Control Plan

  • Cost: $968 million, funded through a federal loan.
  • Expected completion: Dec. 2018
  • Progress as of October 2016: 30 percent

What it entails:

  • Computers on 580 trains
  • 3,900 transponders along 321 miles of track
  • 113 antenna towers

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