The issue: Ten years ago — this is not a typo — Congress mandated that the nation’s rail lines must install Positive Train Control, a technology that could avert rail car disasters. This was before a series of accidents that killed or injured numerous riders and workers.
The federal government gave the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North, $1 billion to do the work. It is complicated and technical; rail lines around the country struggled to meet deadlines. In 2015 the time was extended three years — to Dec. 31, 2018.
The Federal Railroad Administration noted in 2016 that Metro-North, which carries hundreds of thousands of riders to Manhattan every day, and other rail lines were behind scheduled benchmarks.
What we wrote: “The words of Sarah E. Feinberg, [then] administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, used the other day are chillingly blunt: ’Every day that passes without PTC (Positive Train Control), we risk adding another preventable accident to a list that is already too long.”
— Editorial, Aug. 24, 2016
“PTC could have prevented the Metro-North derailment in 2013 in Bridgeport that injured 76 passengers, and it possibly could have stopped a train from crashing into a Hoboken, New Jersey station [in 2016], killing one person.”
— Editorial, Dec. 20, 2017
“Experts believe the system could have prevented as many as six deadly train crashes, including the December 2017 Amtrak derailment is Washington State that killed three passengers and injured 60. Regarding Metro-North, it’s believed by the experts that it could have prevented a 2013 crash on the Harlem line in the Bronx that killed four passengers.”
— Editorial, April 22, 2018
What has happened: Metro-North has made progress on the PTC installation, a computerized network of GPS, sensors, transmitters and other equipment that reduces the potential for human error. Crews positioned radio equipment, antenna and ancillary pieces on the New Canaan branch line the weekend of Aug. 10-12, for example.
A report for the July 23 Metro-North Committee meeting in New York indicated installation of hardware was 85 percent complete and employee training on the system was 95 percent complete. The overall project status was 76 percent finished — with the deadline less than half a year away. And testing still has to be done.
This November Metro-North expects to notify the FRA that it “met all statutory criteria for an Alternative Schedule,” that same report notes.
What does this mean? If Metro-North and the other railroads reach four criteria — “PTC hardware installed, employees trained, radio spectrum acquired and a segment of the railroad operating in a PTC revenue service demonstration” — they can ask the FRA for two more years to fully activate PTC across the entire rail line.
Wait a minute: Metro-North officials must explain to legislators and the public why two more years are needed to make the potentially life-saving equipment fully operational. And tell us why we could we trust that deadline when all others have been missed.