The Long Island Rail Road likely will get a two-year reprieve on a federal mandate issued a decade ago to install crash-prevention technology throughout its system, transportation officials said.
Although the LIRR no longer has to have positive train control technology — or PTC — running completely on any of its lines by Dec. 31, as previously required by the federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, it still has to meet minimum requirements to stave off potential fines as high as $27,904 a day.
PTC uses radio transponders installed on trains, and alongside tracks, to communicate with each other and automatically stop a train if it is at risk of being involved in an accident.
The federal law, which stemmed from a Chatsworth, California, commuter train crash that killed 25 people, originally required railroads 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 the deadline to 2018, and to 2020 for railroads that meet certain minimum milestones by the end of this year.
The revised federal law also allowed railroads to propose “substitute criteria" to comply with the mandate. In late October the Federal Railroad Administration approved such a request from the LIRR, meaning the railroad would only need to have PTC operational on a portion of one branch — from Woodside to Port Washington — and have beyond the December deadline to get there.
In a statement, FRA spokesman Warren Flatau confirmed the agency "has received and approved LIRR’s request to establish substitute criteria," but the LIRR "still must complete revenue service demonstration in the future."
The LIRR said it still aims to begin running PTC on its Port Washington line sometime in December.
“The whole intent is to, obviously, be in compliance by the end of the year,” LIRR President Phillip Eng said. “And we are confident that we are.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has pushed for PTC implementation and helped the MTA secure funding for the project, said there's no good reason why the railroad would need more time, given that it's "more than enough time to get the job done."
"And there is simply no persuasive way to argue that FRA-compliance is the same as PTC-compliance. The latter saves lives and the former saves face," Schumer said in a statement. "Enough already. . . .
"Metro-North and LIRR must pull out all the stops and work around the clock to complete the installation of this lifesaving technology ASAP.”
In a progress report published in November, the LIRR said its PTC project was 85 percent complete, and that it remains “on target to meet all federal compliance requirements.” In October, the railroad completed employee training on the PTC system and installation of hardware.
But the railroad also acknowledged in its report that the “slow resolution of several software issues” could prolong testing and “impact project completion.” The railroad has acknowledged the PTC software has failed in several computer-simulated scenarios.
The LIRR has several other items to check off its PTC to-do list by the end of the year to comply with the federal law, including submitting a new timeline for completing installation. Eng said the LIRR plans to present that schedule to the MTA Board on Dec. 10. The railroad also has to make more progress in working with Amtrak to make sure both their PTC systems are interoperable and provide a date to the FRA by which it will submit a PTC safety plan.
Upon passage of the law, the LIRR focused its early efforts on seeking an exemption from the requirement, arguing its existing safety technology worked well enough. But after a Dec. 1, 2013, derailment on Metro-North — the LIRR’s sister commuter railroad — killed four people, the MTA moved with more urgency to install PTC, which the National Transportation Safety Board has said could have prevented the accident and several others in recent years.
Still, the LIRR’s PTC efforts — and those of several other railroads — have been slowed over the years by the software glitches and a lack of experts in the field to help develop the technology. The LIRR’s project is estimated to cost $530 million and is being funded through a $1 billion federal loan for both the LIRR and Metro-North.
While the LIRR is still not there, many other railroads are further behind. Through Sept. 30, only 24 of 40 railroads had installed 100 percent of the hardware needed for PTC.
The FRA in November identified five railroads it considered “at risk” of missing the Dec. 31 deadline. The LIRR is not on that list, while its two neighbors at Penn Station — Amtrak and NJ Transit — both are.
The American Public Transportation Association, or APTA — a trade group — in a report issued in November commended the railroad industry for making “significant and substantial PTC progress” in the third quarter of the year. According to the report, 68 percent of railroads are already using PTC, are in their revenue service demonstration testing phase — as is the LIRR — or are waiting for approval to begin such testing.
“The significant progress that has been made by the commuter rail industry to install PTC is a demonstration of the industry’s commitment to safety,” APTA president Paul Skoutelas said in a statement. “Commuter railroads are continuing to work tirelessly to meet the Congressional deadline for PTC installation.”