The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has finished installing new technology on the Long Island Rail Road that should make the transit system safer and help the cash-strapped agency avoid fines for delays to the federally mandated upgrades.
The MTA announced Wednesday that the entire railroad is now equipped with positive train control technology, which MTA officials say will help prevent trains from speeding, colliding or derailing. The MTA's Metro-North Railroad now also has the technology in place.
The completion of the project — which comes before a Dec. 31 deadline — follows years of delays, cost overruns and botches in the design and installation of the technology that hampered the LIRR from joining rail systems nationwide in getting positive train control, or PTC, up and running.
That history notwithstanding, the improvements mean the railroad is now "safer than ever," LIRR president Phillip Eng said in an interview.
"I know that our customers not only want a reliable trip, but they also want a safe trip," Eng said. "If [PTC] saves one life, it's worth the effort.
"And it will save more than one life."
Ronald L. Batory, administrator with the Federal Railroad Administration, said in a statement that the agency was pleased with the MTA "successfully meeting this important deadline."
PTC was ordered by Congress in 2008 — after a California train crash — to prevent rail collisions. The system uses communications technology installed on trains and along tracks to automatically slow down or halt trains that violate signals.
The National Transportation Safety Board has said over the years that PTC could have saved the lives of at least 60 people killed in train accidents, including four who perished in a December 2013 Metro-North Railroad derailment in the Bronx.
After spending years unsuccessfully petitioning for an exemption from the federal law, the MTA finally hired a company to carry out its PTC project in November 2013 — five years after the federal law was passed, and just two years before the original 2015 deadline.
Congress pushed that deadline back to December 2018, and then to December 2020, for railroads that had made sufficient progress.
The LIRR hit another major snag last year when its PTC contractor, a joint venture of Bombardier Transportation/Siemens Rail Automation, revealed that it had recalled hundreds of "undercar scanner antennas" installed on trains because they were not properly calibrated.
"Achieving PTC is one of the most important projects railroads across the nation have undertaken, and we got it done despite the many challenges due to the complexities of technology, supply chain and a global pandemic," MTA spokeswoman Meredith Daniels said in an email. "These challenges are certainly not exclusive to the Long Island Rail Road."
If the MTA hadn't finished the job by the year's end, the agency, which is facing a multibillion-dollar deficit because of pandemic-related revenue losses, could have faced daily fines of up to $28,000.
Carl Berkowitz, a Moriches-based railroad safety expert, said the installation of the new technology was a good step toward making the LIRR safer, but more could be done.
"Any improvement to the safety of the system is good news, but that doesn't address the major safety issues on the Island," he said, citing intersections of LIRR tracks and local roads, and that stretches of the tracks are not lined by fences.
Berkowitz questioned how many accidents PTC would have prevented on the LIRR in recent years. MTA officials did not respond to the question.
The budget to install PTC on the LIRR and Metro-North was $1.16 billion, $1 billion of which was covered by a federal loan, MTA spokeswoman Sarah Armaghan said. That’s $192 million more than the original project budget of $968 million.
MTA chairman Patrick Foye last month suggested that some of the hurdles encountered during the project were the result of the federal government being overly rigid in its requirement for a specific crash-prevention system — overwhelming the relatively new PTC design and manufacturing industry, and driving up costs.
With Alfonso A. Castillo