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FRA should investigate MTA’s PTC implementation, Sen. Schumer says

(Source: Press release from the office of New York Senator Chuck Schumer, March 3, 2019)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the heels of a stunning MTA equipment glitch upending the LIRR and Metro-North’s installation of life-saving, Positive Train Control (PTC), U.S. Senator Charles Schumer is calling for the federal government to investigate the mishap so it doesn’t happen again, and so a potentially dangerous safety delay is avoided. Schumer, today, announced his call for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to investigate the MTA’s recent install problems related to federally mandated safety equipment, known as PTC. Federal officials have cautioned that missing the final PTC installation deadline could result in fines of nearly $30,000 a day, and put riders at unnecessary risk.

“To know that the $1 billion dollar project I helped fund, to fully install life-saving PTC on our tracks, has been set back because of a surprise equipment failure is a real stun of a glitch,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. “This is a serious project aimed at saving lives, and we cannot afford, even the smallest risk, that it will again be delayed. That is why, on the heels of this equipment failure, I am asking the feds to begin a top-to-bottom review of the MTA and the LIRR’s PTC install effort, specifically."

“The FRA should be tasked with taking a hard look at the quality controls and communication methods that are in place to ensure money is not wasted and the installation not botched again. The goal should be full-install ASAP. No more delay and no more excuse. The only thing we need less of on this issue, are fingers,” Schumer added.

Just last week, MTA officials reported further delays in installing the life-saving PTC technology due to the installation of faulty equipment. Specifically, more than 4,000 recalled “scanner antennas” were installed, which may impact the schedule for PTC implementation, Schumer worries. The devices, designed to ensure PTC is operable on the tracks, will need to be totally replaced.

Schumer explained, if a conductor falls asleep at the wheel or if a train is on a section of the tracks where another train is approaching, PTC would automatically slow down the train in order to prevent a collision. Once fully implemented, PTC will help prevent fatal crashes, on passenger and freight trains. Schumer and other safety advocates argue that this technology is of the utmost importance and should be fully installed without delay.

Schumer has said that this pace of progress is simply unacceptable as the railroads should be at 100 percent by now, while calling for a look into MTA quality control and communication methods. Schumer, today, says that the feds must investigate this equipment failure and conduct a top-to-bottom review to prevent another delay in PTC installation. Schumer continues to urge the railroads to work even faster to achieve full PTC installation and to not rely on two more years to achieve full PTC installation.

PTC is a communications and signaling system that can be used on railroads to prevent collisions caused by excessive speed and human error. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has found dozens of passenger and freight rail accidents over the years that could have been prevented through the use of PTC, including the 2015 derailment of an Amtrak in Philadelphia in which eight lives were lost, a 2013 Spuyten Duyvil crash in the Bronx in which four lives were lost and more than sixty people were injured, and a 2008 crash in southern California that killed 25 commuters.

The Spuyten Duyvil tragedy was the deadliest train accident within New York City since a 1991 subway derailment in lower Manhattan. Reports from the early investigations of the accident indicated that the train was traveling at almost three times the posted speed limit as it turned into the curve where it ultimately derailed. Furthermore, the engineer of the train had fallen into a daze prior to reaching the curve and was later diagnosed with sleep apnea. Schumer reiterated that the PTC technology could have prevented this fatal derailment and corrected human error by automatically slowing down the train.

Nearly ten years ago, Congress required all railroad main lines with regularly scheduled commuter rail passenger service as well as Class I railroad main lines handling poisonous-inhalation-hazard materials to fully implement PTC by the end of 2015. However, many railroad entities, including the LIRR & Metro-North failed to meet that deadline. As a result, under the PTC Enforcement and Implementation Act, Congress had little choice but to extend the deadline to December 31, 2018 and install statutory fines for rail entities who continue to miss the mark on installation.

Moreover, in 2015, Schumer helped to secure a low-cost, federal Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan from the Department of Transportation (DOT) for $976.1 million to be used by the MTA and its railroads for PTC implementation. DOT gives RRIF priority to projects that provide public benefits, including benefits to public safety such as PTC. The nearly $1 billion in RRIF financing enabled the LIRR and Metro-North to swiftly install and implement PTC.

Schumer’s letter to FRA Administrator Ronald Batory appears below.

Dear Administrator Batory:

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) should investigate and actively monitor the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Positive Train Control (PTC) implementation processes and contractors. Last week, we learned that more than 4,000 PTC-related antennas were recalled from LIRR and Metro-North trains, potentially upsetting the railroads’ efforts to meet their 2020 implementation deadline. This is unacceptable. It has been more than 10 years since Congress passed the Rail Safety and Improvement Act mandating PTC, and dozens of preventable accidents, some fatal, have occurred since then.

Billions of dollars have been invested collectively by the Federal government, state and local governments, and private railroads to meet the PTC mandate. They have contracted with private entities that have expertise in making software and installing the hardware that is PTC. It is distressing that with the stakes so high and so much attention focused on PTC that setbacks like MTA’s are still occurring.

LIRR and Metro-North are two of the nation’s three busiest commuter railroads. Every day they carry hundreds of thousands of my constituents from the suburbs to jobs in New York City. I am deeply concerned about the safety of these riders and all railroad passengers. Congress has made clear that the last PTC deadline extension would be the end of the line. All railroads, passenger and freight, must be compliant with FRA’s PTC mandate by the end of 2020 or face steep fines. I am doing all in my power to ensure New York’s commuter railroads do not end up in that position.

The technological issues that are plaguing MTA’s PTC implementation could possibly herald other installation issues nationwide. I urge FRA to work with MTA and its contractors to limit the impact of this setback, both for the good of rail safety in New York and to monitor potential quality control issues with PTC contractors.

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator

Friday, March 8, 2019

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