The deadly commuter train crash in New York on Sunday has reinforced the urgency for Metra to install the federally mandated safety system designed to prevent such tragedies. Congress has ordered U.S. railroads to install the fail-safe system known as positive train control by the end of 2015. Metra, however, has lobbied for an extension, citing the high cost and sophisticated technologies involved with the system.
The Metro-North commuter train in New York derailed after barreling into a sharp curve at 82 mph, when it should have been going 30 mph. The wreck killed four passengers and injured more than 60. Top officials investigating the accident said it is possible that the positive train control system could have prevented the derailment. The system can override driver action or inaction when a collision or derailment is imminent, according to experts. Although it has been speculated that the engineer was inattentive or even asleep while operating the train, the National Transportation Safety Board cannot yet confirm the cause of the accident.
Likewise, the 2005 Metra train derailment on the Rock Island Line that killed two passengers was attributed to engineer inattention, according to the NTSB. The NTSB is sure that positive train control could have prevented the accident. However, experts say one of the biggest obstacles to implementing positive train control is getting the many different railroad systems to communicate with one another. Metra's positive train control system would need to be compatible with the systems used by Amtrak and freight lines that operate on the same rails.
Metra is currently involved in a balancing act of allocating funds for a positive train control system while also keeping equipment in good condition, updating stations and replacing bridges. Metra's interim executive director said Metra has already spent about $27 million for PTC equipment and project management. However, regardless of the $46 million allocated in the 2014 budget, the price tag of the project as a whole keeps rising, and there isn't enough state and federal money available to ensure the safety system is completed while maintaining Metra's equipment and infrastructure, officials say. If Congress does not extend the PTC deadline, officials believe they will not be able to install the PTC system on all 11 lines by the end of 2015.