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Doubts raised about time frame for new LIRR safety system

Workers install a radio transponder for the positive

Workers install a radio transponder for the positive train control system on a Long Island Rail Road track on March 22, 2017. Credit: MTA

The MTA’s latest progress report on positive train control raises new doubts about the agency’s ability to meet a December deadline to have the lifesaving crash-prevention technology in place at the Long Island Rail Road.

With 10 months left for all railroads in the U.S. to comply with a federal mandate to have positive train control operational or potentially face heavy fines, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said their efforts to install the technology on the LIRR and its sister railroad Metro-North are about 62 percent complete — up from 54 percent when the agency last updated its progress in October.

But, they acknowledge, meeting the deadline will require the LIRR to reach several critical milestones in the coming months, and some have already been missed. For example, completion of a final design for the system, originally expected in the second quarter of 2017, was pushed to December of last year. The MTA missed that mark too, and is now targeting next month.

That means the LIRR is installing a PTC system that hasn’t even been fully designed yet.

“Everyone will tell you this is not the way to go forward,” project director Debbie Chin said during a Tuesday meeting of the MTA Board’s railroad committee. “Unfortunately, with the mandatory deadline, we don’t have the luxury of time.”

Positive train control, also known as 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. 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.

In the wake of a deadly commuter train crash in California, the federal government in 2008 passed the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act, which mandated all railroads have positive train control in place by 2015. When it became obvious that most railroads in the country would miss the deadline, the government later extended it to Dec. 31, 2018.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Friday “there’s simply no reason to delay” the implementation of PTC any further, with the technology available, and the MTA having secured a $1 billion federal loan to pay for the system.

“If an engineer falls asleep at the wheel or if a train is on a section of the tracks where another train is approaching, PTC would automatically slow down the train in order to prevent a collision,” Schumer said. “Once fully implemented, PTC will help prevent fatal crashes, on passenger and freight trains, so it’s of the utmost importance that the MTA and LIRR and Metro North fully install this lifesaving technology.”

MTA officials have pointed to the progress they have made. Over the past year, the LIRR has equipped all M7 electric trains, the majority of its fleet, with the necessary PTC hardware, and trained about half its workers. The technology is already in place and being tested on two stretches of track — between the Harold Interlocking in Long Island City and Port Washington, and between Babylon and Patchogue. The railroad expects to begin testing the system on passenger trains on those branches in August.

But that still leaves the majority of the LIRR territory without PTC capabilities, and some branches aren’t even scheduled to begin testing the technology until October. Chin also noted that problems have come up in factory testing of some elements of PTC that have yet to be resolved.

In addition, the LIRR is required by law to have its system be interoperable with that of Amtrak. And because the LIRR does not have enough employees familiar with PTC, it is considering contracting with retirees to come back to the agency and help with installation efforts. The LIRR will need an additional $40 million — on top of the $967 million budgeted for the system — to complete the project, officials said.

“We will not be able to afford many obstacles to get to where we need to get to,” said Chin.

With the deadline looming, MTA officials said they are focusing their efforts on getting enough done to be compliant with federal standards — a lower threshold that calls for “sufficient progress” in training workers and demonstrating that system operability on most its passenger lines. If it gets that much done, the MTA could be granted another two-year extension to finish the project by 2020.

“We have a lot of critics. But our plan is to get done by the end of the year,” Chin said. “And right now, based on the schedule, we have an opportunity to make it.”

The time frame for the project raised concerns among some MTA Board members, including Scott Rechler — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s hand-picked representative on the board. Rechler questioned whether the MTA has done all it could over the last eight years to meet the deadline. The MTA did not hire its PTC vendor, a joint venture of Siemens and Bombardier, until late 2013.

“My sense is that, based on where we are right now, they’re doing everything that could be done,” Rechler said. “Going back to the beginning, could that have done something different? Could they have operated with a better sense of urgency? Perhaps.”

The consequences of falling short of the federal deadline are uncertain. The fines the federal government has threatened to impose run as high as $27,904 per day. But MTA officials, who have met in recent weeks with Federal Railroad Administration representatives to discuss PTC progress, have said they are confident that they will not face any immediate fines even if they miss the deadline.

In a statement Friday, FRA spokesman Marc Willis said the agency “remains hopeful that all railroads will deliver on their promise of implementing PTC systems on or ahead of the congressional deadline.”

“The FRA will continue to provide technical guidance and assistance to individual railroads throughout the installation, testing, and integration of their PTC systems,” Willis added.

The LIRR and Metro-North are considerably ahead of other railroads — including NJ Transit — in meeting federal PTC compliance standards. Of the 41 railroads covered by the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, at least five have already met compliance standards, including Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and Denver’s Regional Transportation District.

MTA project officials, who are scheduled to discuss their progress before a U.S. Senate committee at a Washington, D.C., hearing Wednesday, have pointed out that even without PTC in place, the authority’s railroads already have in place technology and safeguards that accomplish some of the same goals of PTC, including preventing high-speed train-on-train collisions.

“I think we need to dispel the perception that PTC is this thing that you just sort of switch on at the end of the year, and until you do that, you do not have incremental safety improvements. That’s not the case,” newly appointed Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi told MTA Board members this week. “We are working as hard as we can. I cannot convey to you enough the effort that both these railroads are making to deliver this project as quickly and safely as possible. It is our top priority.”

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