The life-saving, federally-mandated technology the MTA was supposed to install on its commuter rail lines after two fatal crashes is not likely to be completed on time.
Positive Train Control (PTC) is a technology on trains that communicates with hardware on the ground that could slow a train down if its approaching a dangerous curve or section of track at a high speed. After a deadly 2008 crash in California, Congress mandated all railroads, 41 nationwide, install PTC by 2015. It later extended the deadline to 2018, and then December 2020.
Nabil Ghaly, president at Rail Transport Engineering, a consultant on the project, told MTA boardmembers he’d put it at 60 to 65 percent chance the PTC would be installed on the LIRR and MetroNorth by the December 2020 deadline. He blamed Amtrak for slowing things down by not providing software information and cited challenges with working at Harold Interlocking, which serves LIRR and Amtrak, and is under construction as part of East Side Access.
“A lot of that has to do with getting information from Amtrak,” said Deborah Chin who is head of Positive Train Control at the MTA. She said Amtrak sent some information, but not everything that’s needed to move forward on the MTA’s schedule.
“If these issues are addressed in a reasonable time frame, then there’s a good chance for the December 2020 to be met,” Ghaly added.
Experts say the deadly crashes at Spuyten Duyvil and Hoboken could have been prevented if PTC had been installed. As of 2018, the National Transportation Safety Board notes 22 rail accidents could’ve been avoided if PTC had been installed. This week, the NTSB released a preliminary report noting that a 2017 Metro-North crash in which an operator was going 56 mph in a temporarily restricted 10 mph zone could’ve been prevented if PTC had been in place.
Due to the costs, the limited vendors for the technology, as well as technical challenges, only four rail lines made the 2018 deadline. The others met criteria to qualify for a two year extension.
“Amtrak has been working closely with the LIRR and Metro North PTC teams, along with our respective contractors, to advance and resolve the technical issues needed to achieve full interoperability between our systems. While we’re aware of the challenges facing the MTA railroads, Amtrak is not responsible,” Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams, told Gothamist/WNYC. “To the contrary, the teams have been collaborating and working through complex issues of the PTC system due to the extraordinarily dense operation through the East River Tunnels and Harold Interlocking.“
At Monday’s committee meeting, board members agreed to move forward with contract modifications that would levee fines of $4 million a month to Siemens and Bombardier for every month after December 2020 that both LIRR and MetroNorth are not completed. The full board will vote on this on Wednesday.
The Federal Railroad Administration could also fine the MTA up to $27,904 a month as well for missing the deadline.
The new contract modification includes a no debarment clause for the $1 billion PTC project. But Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has expressed disdain for what he calls “the transportation industrial complex” and has repeatedly called for debarment of companies that are late and over budget, said if the December 2020 PTC deadline is not met, all options are still on the table, including debarment.
“This financial agreement cannot be an excuse for intentionally paying their way to not doing the work. Two million dollars a month is not anything to a corporation the size of Siemens,” Board Member Neal Zuckerman said Monday. “This is not a joke,” he added. “This is the most important thing this committee will do this year and next year.”
Governor Cuomo issued an emergency order last January that would allow the state to debar any contractor that misses deadlines and is over budget. Siemens and Bombardier, the two companies tasked with installing. would seem to be prime candidates for debarment based on their previous shortcomings and Chairman Foye referring to their work as "shockingly appalling" after the company had to remove 4,000 faulty antennas. He said their work project has seen "repeated instances of incompetence."
Senator Chuck Schumer has called for a federal investigation into the MTA and how it allowed Siemens and Bombardier to get so far behind on the work.
Because of the limited number of vendors that supply the equipment, the federal Government Accountability Office, which interviewed representatives from half the railroads, noted this summer in a report that software issues “are more acute now because as the 2020 deadline nears, less time remains to address these issues and associated delays.”
[Update / 4:55 p.m.] After this story was published Gothamist/WNYC spoke with the President of MetroNorth, Catherine Rinaldi, who said many lines on MetroNorth have completed PTC installation and are running it already. This includes the entire Danbury line, and the Hudson line between Peekskill and Poughkeepsie.
Rinaldi said she expects Marble Hill to Poughkeepsie will be completed by early November, and the Harlem line from Mt. Vernon to Wassaic by the end of the year. Rinaldi is "highly confident [MetroNorth will] meet the deadline."
This story has been updated to reflect that the MTA and other railroads met the federal deadlines necessary to receive a two-year extension to complete the PTC work from the Federal Railroad Administration.