Colton calls on MTA to put ‘positive controls’ on trains

Says precautions needed after Metro-North tragedy

December 5, 2013 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continued its investigation into the Metro-North train derailment that killed four people, a Brooklyn lawmaker issued a call for “positive” changes in the brake mechanism of commuter trains.

Assemblyman Bill Colton (D-Gravesend-Bensonhurst) called on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates Metro-North, to install special brakes known as “positive controls,” that would automatically decrease train speeds.

Colton said the positive controls could prevent future train derailments. The federal government mandated five years ago that positive controls be installed in transportation systems across the country, but the MTA requested a postponement for implementation, Colton said.

“This is life-saving technology that can be used to prevent future train accidents from occurring. The MTA has a responsibility to make sure everything possible is done to protect the lives of those who use its public transit system. The installation of this system is a no-brainer,” Colton said.

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The safety mechanism, called positive train control (PTC) technology, is used across Europe, according to Colton. It is a computerized system that relies on GPS-based technological and can automatically slow down trains, including when trains are approaching curves in the tracks.

In order for the system to work, every train on a specific rail line is linked to a central system. There are also signals on the trains and thousands of antennas on the tracks, which monitor the precise speed and location of each moving train. If a train is traveling too fast into a curve, the system warns the train’s engineer, showing exactly how long it will take slow down and avoid an accident. If the engineer doesn’t respond to the warning, the system will automatically slow down the train.

The investigation into the Dec. 1 derailment in the Bronx found that the Metro-North train was entering the curve near the Spuyten-Divil station at a speed of approximately 82 mph.

Train engineer William Rockefeller was temporarily dazed just prior to the accident and did not apply the brake until it was too late.

Four people were killed and 70 were injured in the derailment.

The derailment took place two years before a federal government deadline for Metro-North and other railroads to install the automatic-slowdown technology.

In 2008, Congress ordered that the PTC system be installed across the country after a train carrying commuters slammed head-on into a freight train in Chatsworth, California. The California accident, in which 25 people were killed, was one of the deadliest train wrecks in that state’s history.

The congressional measure requires that PTC be installed on 60,000 miles of rail lines in the United States, including on Metro-North, at a total cost of about $10 billion, by the year 2015.

In September, the MTA awarded $428 million in contracts to develop the PTC system for Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).

But the MTA has asked for the deadline to be extended to 2018.

“I am urging the MTA to install the positive controls safety mechanism on all train lines, including Metro-North, which currently do not have it, in a timely manner, rather than waiting or extending the deadline for the system to be installed,” Colton said.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the agency has already started the process of installing positive controls.

“The MTA began work to install Positive Train Control on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad in 2009. To date, the MTA has budgeted nearly $600 million for elements of PTC installation, including a $428 million procurement last month for a system integrator,” he wrote in an email to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

“Full implementation is estimated to cost $900 million, and the MTA will make sure the appropriate funding is made to implement PTC on the most aggressive schedule possible. However, implementing PTC by the 2015 deadline will be very difficult for the MTA as well as for other commuter railroads, as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both concluded,” Ortiz wrote.

“Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and LIRR, and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTC has not been made available. The MTA will continue its efforts to install PTC as quickly as possible, and will continue to make all prudent and necessary investments to keep its network safe,” Ortiz wrote.

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