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Federal agency tells MTA to 'finish the job' with positive train control technology

Long Island Rail Road commuters stand by as

Long Island Rail Road commuters stand by as a train pulls up to a platform Penn Station on June 28.  Credit: Craig Ruttle

Federal officials are turning up the pressure on the MTA to complete its installation of positive train control crash prevention technology, including on the Long Island Rail Road.

A day after meeting with representatives from the LIRR, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy, speaking at a news conference in Darien, Connecticut, said she had one message for the railroad, its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and all other railroads that have yet to meet a federal mandate to install the lifesaving technology known as PTC: “Finish the job.”

“We’re 16 months out from the final deadline . . . There should be no more extensions, no more excuses and no more delays,” said Homendy, who was joined by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “My goal is for the NTSB to never have to investigate another accident that could have been prevented had PTC been fully implemented.”

PTC works by having antennas on trains communicate with radio transponders installed along tracks to automatically slow down or stop a train that goes too fast or violates a signal.

Under the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which stemmed from a Chatsworth, California, commuter train crash that killed 25 people, railroads throughout the United States were required 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 it to 2018. The LIRR and several other railroads then applied for and were granted an extension of the deadline until the end of 2020.  

To date, only four of 41 railroads have completed installation of PTC, according to the NTSB.

The LIRR has struggled with delays, blaming them on its PTC contractor, a consortium of Bombardier and Siemens. The contractor and MTA last week announced a tentative deal wherein the contractor would cover any costs incurred by the railroads if it misses the federal deadline — including federal fines that could cost more than $29,000 a day. Previously — in May, after a series of technical blunders in the $1 billion project — Siemens and Bombardier offered assurances they would complete the project on time. 

“The MTA agrees on the need for full implementation of PTC and remains committed to the systemwide rollout of this technology,” MTA spokesman Tim Minton said Tuesday. “We appreciate that the NTSB and Senator Blumenthal are using this moment to bring continued focus on this vital technology.”

Homendy met with MTA representatives, including LIRR President Phillip Eng, on Monday, at the railroad's Jamaica headquarters and was briefed on the LIRR's PTC status and other safety initiatives, officials said. MTA representatives assured Homendy that the LIRR and Metro-North are well positioned to meet the 2020 deadline.

The news conference Tuesday came on the 50th anniversary of a commuter train crash in Darien that killed four people, and spurred the NTSB’s earliest calls for positive train control. Since then, NTSB officials estimate more than 300 people have lost their lives in train accidents that could have been prevented by PTC.

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