Monday, November 09, 2009

Metro-North Railroad faces safety mandate

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Like other railroads across the country, Metro-North Railroad is considering how to outfit its trains to comply with a federal safety technology mandate that would alert engineers when trains become dangerously close, the Connecticut Post reports.

 

The mandate, with a deadline of 2015, prompted Metro-North to get approval from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to seek a $275-million loan from the Federal Railroad Administration to cover the cost of the work. The railroad has not yet applied for the loan. The loan also would include retraining controllers and other staff to handle the new system.

The "positive train control" technology would provide more precise data on locations of trains along the line. But implementing it could cost as much as $350 million and will be a challenge amidst other major transportation initiatives the agency has to complete, Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders said.

"It's a very expensive proposition because it's not an off-the shelf technology," Anders said. "Not only do we have to design it, but retrain our controllers, mechanics and other workers to use the system."

The Federal Railway Administration is finalizing the rules regarding the changes, which were enacted by Congress last year in the wake of a California train accident that killed 25 people. The rules are expected to be finalized later this year.

Jim Redeker, chief of the state Department of Transportation's bureau of public transportation, did not return calls seeking comment.

This month, passenger and freight railroad industry executives and their representatives asked the Federal Railway Administration to reconsider the scope of the requirements, which a FRA financial analysis concluded were too expensive.

Metro-North equipped its trains and railways with a "cab signaling" system in 1983, an upgrade that has prevented any train collisions since then. The new positive train control system would be installed to work in tandem with the existing system.

The cab-signaling system shoots a warning signal through the rail lines, alerting engineers when two trains come dangerously close and urging to slow down to 15 miles per hour or less, Metro-North Railroad spokesman Dan Brucker said. If the warning goes unheeded, the current and the proposed safety systems would automatically halt the train after a few moments, he said.

"We wouldn't be giving up anything that we have now but it would be adding technology to it," Brucker said.

The requirement was adopted as part of the Railway Safety Act of 2008, which followed a train collision in California in which 25 people were killed and 130 injured. In that accident, safety investigators concluded the engineer had blown through a stop signal.

Railways will be eligible to request to use already procured American Reinvestment & Recovery Act funding to cover the cost of the work, or like Metro-North, apply for loans to complete the upgrades, Federal Railway Administration spokesman Robert Kulat said. Unlike Metro-North, much of the nation's railway network is not equipped with any collision-avoidance systems, and standardizing the system will improve safety and enable trains to travel between lines, Kulat said.

But at the same time, the FRA financial analysis concluded that the estimated $4-billion cost of installing positive train control would "far outweigh any benefits." Additional costs possibly in the range of $7 billion to $24 billion over 20 years to maintain the system are also projected by the agency.

"Interoperability is a huge issue and systems need to be able to talk to one another if a Metro-North train is traveling on the same line as Amtrak or CSX," Kulat said.

Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Railroads, said that the group, which represents the nation's Class 1 freight rail lines, is pressing the Federal Railway Administration to change the proposed guidelines. The group said the proposal is based on freight traffic patterns and volumes that will soon change.

In coming years, Dow Chemical, which is responsible for a major portion of the shipment of hazardous chemicals, plans to cut back the shipments by 50 percent, Arthur said.

Another commonly carried chemical on freight trains, chlorine, is also gradually being replaced by water companies, Arthur said.

"In our view the FRA has gone far beyond what Congress intended and is going to impose staggering costs on the freight railroads," Arthur said. "This could cost $10 billion over the next 20 years and could carry maintenance costs of $750 million a year once it is fully deployed."

Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, a state-appointed body that represents commuters, said the project is a concern if it would require the state of Connecticut or Metro-North to put off other necessary rail or highway projects like completion of the New Haven rail yard.

"It could be a problem if it interferes with the DOT's long-range plans to improve rail," Cameron said. "The MTA's capital budget is only funded through the next two years and there are projects planned that we need funding for."

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