As many as two-thirds of all commuter railroads in the United States — including the Long Island Rail Road — are at risk of missing a December deadline to have lifesaving positive train control technology operational on their systems, according to a new federal report.
The report from the Government Accountability Office was discussed Thursday at a Senate committee hearing in Washington, where lawmakers criticized rail providers for dragging their feet in abiding by the federal mandate issued a decade ago — even after they were granted an extension from the original deadline in 2015.
“Here we are three years later, confronting the same thing that we confronted three years ago — that several railroads are not going to be ready. And it’s going to lead to more crashes,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “When is enough enough?”
Positive train control, also known as PTC, works by having radio transponders that are installed on tracks and on trains communicate with one another to automatically slow down or stop a train if it’s going too fast, is about to hit another train or violates a signal. 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.
The GAO studied the progress made by 29 commuter railroads toward having PTC in place or at least reach compliance standards to be granted another two-year extension. According to the report, as many as 19 of the railroads are at risk of missing the Dec. 31 deadline.
That includes the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s two commuter railroads, the LIRR and Metro-North, which last week reported being about 62 percent of the way toward meeting the federal mandate with 10 months left.
Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure at the GAO, said the MTA’s schedule “quite frankly . . . looks a little bit tight.”
Fleming said the MTA is allotting just months for “some of the more complex, time-consuming activities” that could take up to three years to complete, such as field testing of the technology.
“I know they have a pretty ambitious schedule, but things can happen, particularly as you start the testing phase,” Fleming said. “It doesn’t account for maybe some of the glitches that you can find, the bugs that you can find through testing.”
The Federal Railroad Administration could fine railroads as much as $25,000 per day if they are not in compliance by the deadline.
David Meyer, chief safety officer for the MTA, called the agency’s schedule “highly aggressive, but achievable.” He noted that some of the challenges are out of the agency’s control, including the small number of PTC manufacturers and experts available to all railroads in the country.
“We are working diligently every day to overcome these challenges,” Meyer said.
“I have repeatedly said that the technology is available and the money has been secured via a billion-dollar federal loan I supported, so there’s simply no reason to delay the implementation of Positive Train Control,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It is of the utmost importance that the MTA and LIRR and Metro-North fully install this lifesaving technology ASAP.”