In the five years since Congress imposed a 2015 deadline for all railroads to implement new safety systems to prevent collisions and derailments like the one that killed four people in the Bronx last week, Metro-North Railroad and its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have been slow to embrace the technology and have led efforts to delay the law.
MTA officials, who oversee Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, have cited prohibitive costs, technological hurdles and the need to be compatible with a version of the system used by Amtrak since 2000 in efforts to extend the federal deadline to implement the system known as Positive Train Control.
Positive Train Control uses a global positioning system and trackside transponders to pinpoint the precise location, speed, and direction of trains against a database showing track conditions.
In a presentation last May to the MTA board, officials outlined the railroad's actions toward adopting PTC, but also raised issues about obtaining radio frequency spectrum and difficulties in fabricating hardware for the estimated $900 million project across Metro-North and LIRR.
"Notwithstanding Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North good-faith efforts, there are significant risks impacting LIRR's and Metro-North's ability to meet the December 2015 implementation deadline," the report said.
After The New York Times published an editorial this year urging Congress not to extend deadlines, Metro-North President Howard Permut wrote a reply emphasizing the safety of the railroad's cab signaling system and hurdles to adopting the newer technology, including the price and ensuring the technology works with Amtrak's PTC system.
"We have made great strides in implementing Positive Train Control, designed to prevent collisions, on our systems," Permut wrote. "However, factors beyond our control make it extremely challenging for our railroads to meet the 2015 deadline required by law."
The derailment of an early morning commuter train at a sharp curve on the Harlem Line last Sunday that killed four passengers and injured 63 has prompted the governors of New York and Connecticut and federal lawmakers to demand swifter action and oversight over efforts to make the railroad safer, and escalated calls to focus on a PTC system.
The National Transportation Safety Board's initial investigation has indicated the train was running at 82 mph entering a curve where the speed limit was 30 mph.
"Positive train control would have prevented this accident and slowed the train down farther back from the curve," said Professor Steven Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration regulator who now teaches at the Railway Management Program at the University of Michigan. "It would not have allowed the train to go above 70 mph and would have indicated the curve was approaching."
William Rockefeller, the engineer who was driving the ill-fated train told federal investigators that he went into a daze in the time just before the crash. An alerter system designed to sound an alarm after 25 seconds of inactivity that might have snapped Rockefeller out of his stupor was installed in the locomotive in the rear of the train and not in the cab control car where Rockefeller was sitting. New versions of the cab cars will be equipped with the alarm system according to the MTA.
Two days after Sunday's train wreck Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called on Permut and MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast to detail and disclose their inspection and safety programs and capital plans, including building the PTC system. Malloy also pledged to work to boost maintenance and operating budgets to improve safety, and push for increased federal funding for capital infrastructure.
"I urge Metro-North to expedite full implementation of PTC throughout the network," Malloy said. "This is an essential investment in safety that is a top priority."
Malloy has been critical of Metro-North since a New Haven-bound train derailed in Bridgeport in May and was struck by a second train injuring 76 passengers. Read Full Article
At the same time, Congress is considering a proposed law to extend the deadline for mandatory implementation of the technology on 60,000 miles of track nationwide, a move that U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said might fail in the wake of this week's tragedy. The extension is favored by Metro-North and was endorsed by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Government Accountability Office in separate reports in the past two years, noting significant obstacles block the full implementation of the technology.
"I know that Metro-North has been resistant, but clearly the railroad needs to face its responsibility for better performance on safety and reliability," Blumenthal said of positive train control. "I would oppose any delay in this kind of vital safety measure."
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said the railroad needs to move quickly to prevent future tragedies.
"We've seen tragedy after tragedy on local railroads because trains were either moving too fast or conductors were unaware of obstacles," Himes said. "The railroads need to move as quickly as possible to implement these life-saving technologies."
A troubled year
Before May, most concerns centered on the New Haven Line's infrastructure and reliability problems due to aging equipment -- the state's aging fleet of rail cars have been knocked out of service by weather or century-old catenary wires that sag in high heat -- not the safety of the service itself.
That changed on May 17, when an eastbound commuter train derailed and collided with another heading in the opposite direction in Bridgeport. The NTSB investigation revealed problems with the underlying support system of the track and rails had been identified by an inspection two days before the crash but the railroad did not close the track or issue a slow-speed order through the area.
Two weeks later, Metro-North foreman Robert Luden was killed by a train traveling 70 mph through a work zone when a probationary rail controller mistakenly opened a closed section of track where he was working. Luden had requested the piece of track be placed out of service for repairs.
In September, Malloy, Blumenthal and others demanded quicker action to restore service when New Haven Line service was crippled for 13 days after a 138,000-volt feeder cable in Mount Vernon, N.Y. failed. A secondary cable had been taken out of service the month before to enable a substation upgrade.
Metro-North acknowledged that it had determined establishing a secondary cable on standby in the event of failure wasn't warranted because it considered the risk of failure low.
Push for disclosure and action
On Friday the Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order that Metro-North adjust its current automatic cab signaling system to slow down speeding trains, following on an effort to audit and monitor track maintenance after the May derailment in Bridgeport. Failure to comply with the order can result in sanctions against the railroad, and enforcement actions against employees who fail to enforce necessary speed restrictions, officials said.
Malloy's office and the DOT did not respond to repeated requests on how officials will press the governor's request to expedite the PTC technology's installation.
In his letter, Malloy said that he believed that public confidence in the state of good repair and safety of Metro-North were shaken and demanded an "action plan" that addressed communication, safety reporting, inspection, and maintenance programs as well as longer term capital projects to improve infrastructure.
"Given many recent events there is understandably a negative public perception of the railroad infrastructure and state of good repair, coupled with a deep concern for our safety," Malloy wrote.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also said he wanted to push forward with the system before the NTSB's investigation concludes based on the conclusion of federal investigators that the brakes on the train showed no signs of mechanical problems. Earl Weener, a board member of the NTSB said this week that if brakes are working correctly that a positive train control system should have prevented the fatal derailment.
Blumenthal said he believed Metro-North's desire to delay the mandated deadline for adopting positive train control should not be granted by Congress because the deadline should be achievable given the MTA's resources.
"There has been no credible reason given to extend the deadline for positive train control in my view," Blumenthal said. "The 2015 deadline is doable and should be achieved."
Difficult technological challenge
Much of the necessary technology to implement the complex collision avoidance system was not developed when Congress passed the mandate in 2008 to implement it by 2015 in the wake of a rail disaster in Los Angeles that killed 26 people, according to railroad officials and advocates pushing for the extension.
Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said that in addition to challenges in building the equipment from scratch before the deadline, the railroad has also been unable to get sufficient radio spectrum to operate the system in Fairfield and New Haven counties on the New Haven Line and two other New York counties.
"It is not an off-the shelf technology and every piece of new equipment involved doesn't exist yet. It and has to be created," Anders said. "It involves retrofitting every train, cab, locomotive, and piece of rolling stock many of them that are not designed to have another electrical cabinet on board."
Also unsettled is how to handle electromagnetic interference in the Northeast corridor that could hinder the operation of data radio components that would interface with the on-board computers that need to communicate with servers that cross reference track conditions.
The MTA has budgeted $600 million of the necessary $900 million to fully implement the system across Metro-North and Long Island railroads, officials said this week.
Last month the agency awarded a $428 million contract to Siemens Rail Automation and Bombardier to work jointly to develop, test, and commission a new positive train control system to overlay on the already existing automatic train control system in phases.
The American Public Transportation Association, which represents commuter railroads is calling on Congress to provide 80 percent of the necessary billions in funding to implement the system and to direct the FCC to provide free radio frequency spectrum to railroads to facilitate adoption of the system.
"We've asked the FCC to provide free radio spectrum but that hasn't happened yet," Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for APTA said. "It is a public safety priority and that hasn't happened yet."
Blumenthal acknowledged that the federal government needs to boost spending to improve the New Haven Line and Northeast Corridor beyond levels currently put forward. So far the federal government has appropriated only $50 million towards the implementation of positive train control.
"There is a need for higher and better federal investment not only in positive train control but in all of the equipment and tracks that are essential to reliability," Blumenthal said. "Positive train control is just one example."