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Engineer: Contractor has 'fair' chance of hitting LIRR positive train control deadline

The LIRR's positive train control system is installed

The LIRR's positive train control system is installed on the Montauk Line. PTC uses antennas and transponders built into trains and along tracks to automatically slow down or stop a train before it can be involved in an accident.   Credit: MTA

MTA officials, after tentatively agreeing not to cut business ties with the contractor behind the Long Island Rail Road's delay-plagued positive train control project, have put the deal on hold following an independent engineer's prediction that there is just a "fair" chance the project will get done on time.

Still, MTA officials insist they remain on track to have the lifesaving crash-prevention technology in place by the December 2020 federal deadline.

On Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's railroad committee approved the deal, under which the contractor — a joint venture of Siemens AG and Bombardier Transportation — would be held liable for expenses incurred by the MTA up to $100 million if the deadline is missed. In exchange, the MTA would agree not to ban the companies from future consideration for contracts.

The full MTA Board was set to vote on the deal at its meeting Wednesday in Manhattan, but opted instead to put off the vote until next month. MTA chairman Patrick Foye said the postponement was because "some board members felt the need for additional information."

The MTA Board also tabled two other resolutions that would have awarded Siemens more than $47 million in new contracts, including for various signal components for the LIRR.

Positive train control, or PTC, uses antennas and transponders built into trains and along tracks to automatically slow down or stop a train before it can be involved in an accident. National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said PTC could have prevented several fatal train accidents in recent years, including the December 2013 derailment of a Metro-North train in the Bronx that killed four people.

A federal law passed in 2008 requires American railroads to install the technology. The LIRR and sister railroad Metro-North twice have missed deadlines, in 2015 and 2018, and been granted extensions.

MTA officials have blamed the contractor for repeated delays and cost overruns in the $1 billion project, including those caused by mistakes in the installation of some components and inadequate resources.

Under the looming threat of the state's new "debarrment" statute, which allows the MTA to ban underperforming vendors from consideration for future contracts, the Siemens and Bombardier venture said it has stepped up its efforts to finish the project on time. And if it doesn't, the contractor has promised to cover any "actual damages" — including federal fines that could cost as much $29,000 a day.

Foye said the arrangement gives the contractor “plenty of incentive to get it done by the federal deadline.”

“I think the agreement that was reached is hugely positive,” Foye added.

In a joint statement, Bombardier and Siemens said they remain "confident" the agreement will be ratified.

"The Bombardier Siemens PTC Project Consortium has collaborated in good faith on an agreement that reinforces our commitment to helping the MTA achieve the PTC certification deadline and to ensuring our mutual goal of providing safe, reliable and efficient transportation for the railroads’ passengers," the contractors said.

The prospect of the deadline being missed has become more likely in recent months, according to an independent engineer hired by the MTA to evaluate the project. The project's "contingency" cushion — or extra time built into the project to address unforeseen complications — has been cut in half, from six months to just three — as complications continue to arise, including problems coordinating with Amtrak, whose PTC system has to work seamlessly with the LIRR's.

With those, and other problems, yet to be resolved, the engineer put the chances of the project being finished on time at "fair" — or about 60% to 65%.

Despite the murky forecast, MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins said the agency is "currently on track to complete" the project on time "and has met every milestone" set by the Federal Railroad Administration to date.

Still, MTA Board member Neal Zuckerman, who heads the board's PTC working group, pointed out that with the new delays, some of the future milestones are not expected to be reached until November of next year, making him "very concerned about the goalpost being moved so close to the deadline." 

"We are really in a precarious situation here," Zuckerman said.

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