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Friday, October 23, 2009

NCTD leaders slam federal requirement on PTC mandate

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North County Transit District leaders in the San Diego area floated the idea of refusing to pay for an expensive and federally mandated rail safety program, then did a quick about-face when they learned such a move could shut down the district's coastal railway, the North county Times reports. In the end, the district's board voted 8-1 to pay for a $332,728 study of how to install positive train control. The required safety technology could cost NCTD anywhere from $27 million to $90 million. To put that in perspective, as board member and Solana Beach City Councilman Dave Roberts did, $90 million is about the size of NCTD's entire annual budget.

"I understand we're all frustrated," said Matt Tucker, the district's executive director, after several board members asked why NCTD should have to pay for the unfunded mandate. "(But) we're the owners of the railroad. And if we don't take steps to maintain the railroad, we could find ourselves in a precarious way."

The district's attorney, C. Michael Cowett, was more direct, saying, "In a practical manner, we won't be operating trains on this railway. The law clearly says that. So it'd be a game of chicken."

The advice didn't budge board member Mark Packard, a Carlsbad city councilman. He was the lone 'no' vote.

"If (the federal government) believes this is important, why are they not funding it?" he said earlier in the meeting, held in NCTD's Oceanside, Calif., headquarters.

The costly safety project uses global positioning technology, two-way wireless data links and computers installed on every train to create a backup system that can hit the brakes if a train is going too fast. It also can stop a train that's about to run a red light and is heading toward oncoming traffic.

Positive Train Control was mandated for all intercity passenger and commuter railroads by 2008's Federal Rail Safety Improvement Act. That law was spurred by the Chatsworth train disaster in which a Metrolink train ran a red light and crashed head-on into a freight train, killing 25 people in the Los Angeles suburb on Sept. 12, 2008.

Tucker, NCTD's executive director, said the technology will provide more than just safety. It will allow trains to run more frequently on the 90-mile railway, literally just seconds behind each other. That's because the automated controls provide more assurance than humans can that a train will stop on time in the event of a problem, Tucker explained.

The California-based design firm, HNTB Corp., was awarded the $332,728 contract. It is tasked with planning the scope of the safety project, refining its cost and recommending how the district should proceed.

NCTD must submit an initial project plan to the Federal Railroad Administration by April 16.