By Richard Wronski
Chicago Transportation Journal
Metra has told federal regulators that it doesn’t plan to have a high-tech safety system installed on its commuter trains until 2020, five years after a deadline that was originally imposed by Congress in 2008.
The safety system, known as Positive Train Control, uses GPS, sophisticated software and equipment to automatically slow or stop speeding trains and prevent the kinds of derailments that occurred on Metra’s Rock Island Line in 2003 and 2005 that resulted in two deaths and dozens of injuries.
Most recently, federal safety experts say, PTC would have prevented the May 12 derailment in Philadelphia of an Amtrak train that was traveling at twice the speed limit. Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured.
In the face of a threatened national railroad shutdown on Jan. 1, Congress in October approved an extension of the PTC deadline until the end of 2018, with some exceptions.
The Federal Railroad Administration on Wednesday released a list of dates by which the nation’s freight and commuter railroads said they planned to have PTC fully implemented.
Metra and Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority were the only two big-city commuter rail agencies that said they would need until 2020 to have PTC ready.
Metra said Wednesday that the 2020 timetable it filed with the FRA was a “realistic schedule” and met the “legal deadline” for PTC implementation as outlined in the extension legislation Congress passed in October.
The legislation allows railroads to file an “alternative schedule” for PTC by the end of 2018, Metra said. That schedule calls for acquiring radio spectrum, training personnel, and operating a PTC demonstration on one line. Metra plans to have PTC on the Rock Island Line, one of its 11 lines.
Metra spokesman Michael Gillis denied the agency was being dilatory in installing PTC.
“What we’ve been saying is we would do everything we could to make the deadline,” Gillis told the Chicago Transportation Journal. “We have been pretty open about the challenges we face. … Our plans are to have PTC done by 2020 and we’re working within the parameters of the legislation.”
Still, critics and some legislators have accused the railroad industry of foot-dragging on PTC, pointing to the fact that the original mandate was imposed in 2008 after a deadly accident in the Los Angeles area.
FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg has taken a hard-line approach to PTC implementation, and, before Congress extended the 2015 deadline, threatened railroads with stiff fines.
“Positive Train Control prevents rail accidents and saves lives,” Feinberg said in a statement Wednesday. “We are encouraged that many railroads have submitted plans to meet – some even to beat – 2018. But we remain concerned that several other freight and passenger railroads are aiming for 2020.”
Four other major commuter rail lines, the Long Island Rail Road, Metro North (in the New York region), New Jersey Transit and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), told the FRA they would meet the 2018 deadline. The South Shore Line (Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District) also said it would meet the 2018 deadline, according to the FRA.
Amtrak said it would have PTC in place by 2018, and already is operating the system on its Northeast Corridor.
Two of Metra’s freight railroad partners, the BNSF and the Union Pacific, said they would also have PTC in place by 2018. These railroads operate four of Metra’s busiest lines under contract.
Three other major freight railroads, Canadian National, CSX and Norfolk Southern, told the FRA they would not have PTC until 2020.
In recent months, Metra had indicated it intended to have PTC operable by 2018 or 2019. After attending a congressional briefing in September in Washington, Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno said Metra “will do everything we can” to meet a 2018 deadline.
Orseno was the point man in the commuter railroad industry’s campaign to convince Congress to extend the deadline.
Members of the Illinois Congressional delegation, including Rep. Michael Quigley of Chicago and Sen. Dick Durbin, both Democrats, pushed hard for the extension. Quigley’s and Durbin’s offices said Wednesday they had no immediate comment on Metra’s timetable.
Metra, along with the commuter and freight railroads, argued that installing PTC was enormously complicated and expensive. Metra estimates that installing PTC will cost $350 million to $400 million, and that it has the most complex system in the country because of Chicago’s rail network.
Copyright 2016 Chicago Transportation Journal