Feds: Rail­roads slow to make progress on safety tech­nol­ogy

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OBITUARIES - By Michael R. Sisak

The na­tion’s three busiest com­muter rail­roads — which to­gether serve nearly 1 mil­lion rid­ers in the New York City area each day — con­tinue to lag be­hind their smaller West Coast coun­ter­parts in in­stalling so­phis­ti­cated train-con­trol tech­nol­ogy that’s seen as an an­ti­dote to crashes in­volv­ing speed­ing and other hu­man fac­tors, fed­eral reg­u­la­tors said Mon­day.

The Long Is­land Rail Road, New Jer­sey Tran­sit and Metro-North all made scant progress on im­ple­ment­ing GPS-based pos­i­tive-train con­trol in the quar­ter end­ing Sept. 30, ac­cord­ing to new Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion data. Over the last three months, the LIRR and Metro-North have trained more em­ploy­ees on the sys­tem, the data shows, but nei­ther they nor NJ Tran­sit in­stalled it on any tracks.

The rail­roads say the fed­eral data doesn’t fully re­flect their progress and that they are still on track to meet a De­cem­ber 2018 dead­line to in­stall the tech­nol­ogy, which is de­signed to au­to­mat­i­cally slow or stop trains that are go­ing too fast.

“Metro North and LIRR have ag­gres­sively and dili­gently moved for­ward to fully im­ple­ment PTC on both rail­roads be­fore the Con­gres­sion­ally man­dated dead­line,” said Tom Pren­der­gast, the chair­man of New York’s Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity.

The LIRR and MetroNorth say they’ve in­stalled PTC equip­ment on more than 300 train cars and placed more than 2,000 transpon­ders along their tracks. NJ Tran­sit says it’s await­ing fed­eral ap­proval to ac­quire a slice of re­quired ra­dio spec­trum and has test­ing sched­uled for next year on a 6-mile stretch of track.

Fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors have listed the lack of PTC as a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in at least 25 crashes over the last 20 years, in­clud­ing a Metro-North wreck in New York City in 2013 that killed four peo­ple and one in­volv­ing Am­trak in Philadel­phia last year that killed eight peo­ple.

In both crashes, trains en­tered sharp curves at more than dou­ble the speed limit. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are now look­ing at whether PTC could have pre­vented a fa­tal crash in Septem­ber, in which a train plowed into a sta­tion go­ing dou­ble the 10 mph speed limit.

The rail­road in­dus­try dropped op­po­si­tion to PTC af­ter a Metrolink com­muter train whose en­gi­neer was tex­ting ran a stop sig­nal and col­lided head-on with a freight train near Los An­ge­les in 2008, killing 25 peo­ple.

Metrolink, which car­ries about 40,000 daily rid­ers, is now among the na­tion’s lead­ers in PTC im­ple­men­ta­tion. The rail­road has the sys­tem op­er­at­ing on all but 3 miles of track that it owns.

San Fran­cisco’s Cal­train, San Diego’s Coaster and Seat­tle’s Sounder com­muter rail­roads all have PTC equip­ment in­stalled on their lo­co­mo­tives, but none of them have the sys­tem fully im­ple­mented.

Even the busiest West Coast com­muter rail­road, Cal­train with about 57,000 daily rid­ers, is tiny com­pared with the East Coast be­he­moths.

Cal­train owns 52 miles of track and has 67 lo­co­mo­tives, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral data. The Long Is­land Rail Road, NJ Tran­sit and Metro-North each own more than 300 miles of track, and to­gether they op­er­ate more than 1,500 lo­co­mo­tives.

SEPTA, in the Philadel­phia area, op­er­ates the only north­east com­muter rail­road near­ing full im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The tran­sit agency’s rail­road divi­sion - the na­tion’s fifth busiest with 134,000 daily rid­ers, 108 miles of track and 288 lo­co­mo­tives - has PTC in place on all but one stretch of track, has equip­ment in­stalled in all its trains and has com­pleted train­ing for all em­ploy­ees, ac­cord­ing to agency and FRA data.

Am­trak has in­stalled pos­i­tive train con­trol on most of the 450 miles of track it owns be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Bos­ton. A 56-mile sta­te­owned stretch be­tween New Rochelle, New York, and New Haven, Con­necti­cut, still doesn’t have the tech­nol­ogy.

Freight rail­roads, which own the vast ma­jor­ity of track in the U.S., had PTC ac­tive on 12 per­cent of their tracks as of Sept. 30, up from 9 per­cent last quar­ter, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral data.

Ed Green­berg, of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Rail­roads, said the in­dus­try has spent more than $7.1 bil­lion on PTC tech­nol­ogy and ex­pects fi­nal costs to reach about $10.6 bil­lion by the time it is fully op­er­a­tional on about 60,000 miles of track.

“The FRA’s lat­est sta­tus update il­lus­trates the com­plex­i­ties in­volved in de­vel­op­ing, in­stalling and then thor­oughly test­ing this com­plex, rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nol­ogy to en­sure it is pro­vid­ing ad­di­tional safety ben­e­fits,” Green­berg said.

DAMIAN DOVARGANES — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In a Feb. 20, 2014 file photo, Metrolink Di­rec­tor of Op­er­a­tions, R.T. McCarthy, demon­strates Metrolink’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of Pos­i­tive Train Con­trol at the Metrolink Lo­co­mo­tive and Cab Car Sim­u­la­tors train­ing fa­cil­ity in Los An­ge­les’ Union Sta­tion.

MARK LENNIHAN — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this Dec. 1, 2013 file photo, an Am­trak train, top, trav­el­ing on an un­af­fected track, passes a de­railed Metro North com­muter train in the Bronx. Of­fi­cials are stand­ing on a curve in the tracks where the Metro North train de­railed.

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