Home Public Transit Policy On the problem with unfunded federal safety mandates

On the problem with unfunded federal safety mandates

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the years, I’ve mentioned the ways in which the federal government overreacts when it comes to rail safety. High-profile train accidents are so few and far between that the feds seem to deem them great failures that require immediate legislative responses. If only our representatives were so attuned to the problems of pedestrian safety.

Anyway, a few years ago, a train accident in California that caused the deaths of 25 passengers set off a flurry of action. Investigators determined that the train operator was texting while driving and failed to stop at a red light. The solution: Require all rail roads to implement Positive Train Control, a costly technology that doesn’t really even exist in a form usable by the most heavily trafficked commuter lines. Amtrak has spent an exorbitant amount of money on it and likely will not meet the federally-mandated 2015 deadline. The MTA is struggling with the unfunded mandate as well, The Post reported.

Jennifer Fermino had more:

A federally mandated safety program that will cost at least $750 million has forced the MTA to put off upgrades that would benefit millions of riders on the LIRR and Metro-North, The Post has learned. The improvements would have eased crowded train cars, reduced delays and increased parking spots, sources said. But instead, the MTA is being forced to spend money on a system called Positive Train Control, which must be installed by 2015. It’s even more outrageous because the agency has already spent $1 billion on safety upgrades that make Metro-North and LIRR the safest commuter railroads in the nation.

Still, to meet the deadline, the MTA has had to defer a host of rider-friendly projects. That includes signal upgrade work on Metro-North’s upper Harlem and Hudson lines, which would allow officials to run more trains in a shorter period of time and reduce delays. It will also defer the addition of electrical substations on the upper Harlem line, which will give officials the juice needed to run longer trains that would ease rider overcrowding. The Long Island Rail Road, meanwhile, has shelved plans to expand and add parking at busy stations…

The MTA’s preliminary estimates for PTC, which allows a computer to reduce a train’s speed in a number of situations, will cost $750 million for both railroads combined. But a recent MTA analysis found the true cost could soar to $1 billion, in part because the technology will have to be specially adapted to suit the nation’s two largest and busiest commuter rail systems. Adding to the cost, much of the software and hardware needed to install PTC in New York — which includes retrofitting 1,200 miles of track and 1,000 rail cars — hasn’t even been developed yet.

With many agencies looking at few options, price tags will be significantly higher than they should be as well. “All the railroads in the Northeast simultaneously are having to do the same thing in a very small industry, so there’s clearly going to be a lack of competition” Metro-North President Howard Permut said last week.

The MTA failed to get a exemption two years ago and will now lobby the FRA for a compliance extension to 2018. No matter the outcome, the authority will have to spend money it doesn’t really have on a technology it doesn’t need. And this is why I grow wary every time the feds start talking about subway safety regulations or rail standards. It’s a hindrance to good oversight and future growth.

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Adirondacker12800 May 29, 2012 - 8:38 am

NJTransit completed the project years ago. After an accident like the one in California that didn’t involve texting or otherwise being distracted.

Nathanael June 1, 2012 - 3:53 am

And Amtrak is on schedule to complete the PTC project by the end of 2012.

The MTA is talking out its ass. PTC can be done with stock parts. It’s perfectly straightforward. Metro-North has the option of copying EXACTLY what NJT and Amtrak have done; LIRR could do something very similar.

And most of the cost of PTC is signal replacement, so claiming that they can’t replace signals because they have to spend money on PTC is pure lies.

I don’t think much of the liars running Metro-North and LIRR who are claiming that this is a big problem.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines May 29, 2012 - 8:59 am

[…] Federal Safety Regs Force MTA to Put Off Commuter Rail Upgrades (Post, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

JebO May 29, 2012 - 12:09 pm

When was the last time someone was killed on board a LIRR or Metro-North train because two trains collided? I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but it must have been decades ago. Yet people are killed on highways every single day. If the federal government truly wanted to promote safety, they’d work to get people out of cars and into trains. This narrow-minded, mode-specific policy does the opposite.

SEAN May 29, 2012 - 12:21 pm

Not only that, by extention causes comsumers to be further dependent on a cmmoty whose price projectory is forever upwards

Bolwerk May 29, 2012 - 4:29 pm

Well. I’m glad it’s oblique enough that everyone sees the point!

david vartanoff May 29, 2012 - 1:18 pm

There have been safety systems similar to PTC in use since the 50s. The problem is that the major RRs mostly disabled these as economy moves. The Chatsworth wreck (texting) finally woke up the regulators after several other misread/ignored signal caused crashes. The Silver Spring MD Amtrak/MARC wreck in Feb ’96 killed 11 but the FRA response was to mandate heavier cars, NOT any safety system upgrades. All of the “unfunded” whining notwithstanding, everyone will benefit–just like seatbelts/airbags/anti lock brakes. BTW the NYC Subway has a more primitive mechanical system to enforce speed limits and train separation which has worked well except when sabotaged.

Alon Levy May 30, 2012 - 7:33 am

Require all rail roads to implement Positive Train Control, a costly technology that doesn’t really even exist in a form usable by the most heavily trafficked commuter lines.

Ben, this sentence is so wrong I can’t even begin to describe all counterexamples, except to say there exist some in the US. In Europe and Japan, PTC has been standard on the main lines for decades, and the various European vendors are now embarking on a multi-billion euro, multi-year project to unify everything into one open standard, ETCS.

Alas, the E in ETCS stands for European. Thus, American railroads refuse to employ it even when it’s exactly what they need.


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