Connecticut risks federal fines for slow adoption of rail-safety system

A Metro North train on the New Haven line

Mirror file photo

A Metro North train

Washington – The Federal Railroad Administration said Wednesday it would fine railroad companies and railroad track owners, like the state of Connecticut, if they don’t implement a safety technology known as positive train control by a Dec. 31  deadline.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation said it can’t implement the technology on the more than 250 miles of track it owns in the state before 2018.

“The law is the law…I can’t extend the deadline. And I won’t,” said Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

In her testimony before the House transportation and infrastructure subcommittee on railroads, Feinberg said the penalties will vary according to circumstance and could be “assessed per violation, per day.”

Connecticut is almost unique in the nation in owning track used in the state – other than the routes owned by Amtrak. There are four state-owned tracks between New Haven and the New York border and branch lines to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury.

None of those tracks have positive train control.

Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart said he thinks the state can escaped being fined.

“We are fully aware of the deadline and believe that states that are making a good-faith effort toward PTC will not likely be fined,” he said.  “CTDOT is working as aggressively as possible with Metro-North to advance the project, but there are still many technical issues to be resolved.”

Using sensors placed on the tracks, positive train control technology monitors trains and automatically slows or stop them if they are going too fast or are in danger of a collision.

The complex and expensive system uses GPS, wireless radios and computers. Some railroads said they are hindered in their efforts by a lack of commercial broadband spectrum needed to implement the technology.

Charles Mathias of the Federal Communications Commission testified that Amtrak has enough spectrum to install PTC in the Northeast Corridor, and there is a “proposed transaction” — by law spectrum must be acquired at auction or from third parties — to provide the Metropolitan Transportation Authority with the spectrum it needs to implement PTC in Connecticut.

The MTA is the parent of Metro North and would also be fined if it fails to meet the Dec. 31 deadline. Under  law, locomotives and other equipment must be equipped with PTC technology.

After two trains crashed head-on in California in 2008, killing 25 people, Congress in 2008 mandated that PTC be installed throughout the nation’s railroad system by the end of 2015.

Amtrak has implemented the technology on about 400 miles of its track on the Northeast corridor, including its New Haven to Boston route, but not on a critical stretch of track in Philadelphia where Train No. 188 derailed last month, killing at least eight people and injuring more than 200. There is no PTC on Amtrak’s line from New Haven to Springfield, Mass., through Hartford.

While it still has to do extensive testing of the system, Amtrak said it will meet FRA’s deadline in the  busy Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington.

Other railroads won’t.

Lawmakers expressed frustration at the slow pace of PTC implementation.

“There’s increasing impatience and concern about how long it’s taking,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, a member of the panel.

Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. and  Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.,  introduced a bill a month before the Philadelphia Amtrak crash that would extend the deadline to implement PTC technology until 2018.

Another bill introduced in the Senate would extend the deadline until 2020.

Feinberg declined to comment on the legislation. “My preference is that railroads need to meet the deadline,” she said.

But Feinberg  asked Congress for money so the FRA could give railroad companies more grant money to implement PTC.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation said $115 million has been earmarked for positive train control on the New Haven line, a heavily traveled stretch of track that runs from New Haven to Mount Vernon, N.Y. Most of the money came from the Federal Railroad Administration. The state expects another  $22 million later this year from FRA and another $5 million in state bonding, for a total of $142.6 million for the project.

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