The Works

Signaling Upgrades That Might Have Prevented Sunday’s Metro-North Deaths Won’t Finish Until 2019

Human error has emerged as the most likely culprit in Sunday’s Metro-North derailment, but the MTA won’t have positive train control — which may have avoided the deaths — installed until 2019 at the earliest, in defiance of a congressional mandate.

Credit: NTSB on Flickr

Update: Reports are leaking out that the driver of the doomed train fell asleep at the controls (or “zoned out,” as he reportedly put it) right before the derailment – which means that the accident would almost surely have been preventable with positive train control.

Early on Sunday morning, a Metro-North train that left Poughkeepsie, N.Y. heading for Manhattan derailed near the Spuyten Duyvil station, careening off the tracks and planting itself precariously close to the intersection of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, on the southwestern tip of the Bronx. Four people were killed in the accident — the first passenger fatalities in the railroad’s 30-year history — and at least 63 were injured, though the death toll was mercifully low for the magnitude of the accident. Had the derailment not happened at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning during a holiday weekend, or had the train traveled just a bit farther and fallen into the water, the number of dead could have risen much higher.

Monday afternoon, the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that the train had been traveling at 82 miles per hour as it approached the notorious Spuyten Duyvil curve, much faster than the 30 mph speed restriction on that part of the tracks and the 70 mph limit on the preceding part.

At this point, there are two leading theories as to why the train derailed: mechanical brake failure and human error. Brake failure was first implied by the train’s driver, whom the New York Post says “insisted that he hit the brakes but they didn’t work.”

But with so many brake failsafes on modern trains and an NTSB’s investigator’s statement that they haven’t found any evidence of brake failure so far, human error is the more likely culprit at this point.

With the caveat that we won’t know for sure what caused the accident until the feds finish their investigation, many are pointing to positive train control as something that might have prevented Sunday’s accident (an MTA spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal, “If the accident was caused by speeding, PTC would have stopped it”). The technology, known as PTC, automatically stops trains before they get into a situation where they might crash, or slows them down to an acceptable pace on speed-restricted stretches of track like that in Spuyten Duyvil.

Following the 2008 Metrolink crash, when a commuter train collided head-on with a freight train in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, Congress passed a law mandating that most U.S. tracks and trains be equipped with positive train control technology by the end of 2015. There have been widespread complaints among freight railroads about the cost of implementing the safety measures — former Obama administration regulatory czar Cass Sunstein once called it a rare example of a regulation whose costs outweigh its benefits — but passenger railroads have also chafed.

“I don’t ever want to paint anything as perfect,” Metro-North President Howard Permut told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, before the derailment. “There’s always human error. Things happen.” He added that the MTA’s current protections have “been proven to be an extremely safe system.”

Anonymous “sources,” presumably at the MTA, hit against the PTC mandate even harder in May, when they told the Post that unnecessary federal regulations have delayed other capacity improvements:

The feds are ruining your commute.

A federally mandated safety program that will cost at least $750 million has forced the MTA to put off upgrades that would benefit millions of riders on the LIRR and Metro-North, The Post has learned.

The improvements would have eased crowded train cars, reduced delays and increased parking spots, sources said.

But instead, the MTA is being forced to spend money on a system called Positive Train Control, which must be installed by 2015.

It’s even more outrageous because the agency has already spent $1 billion on safety upgrades that make Metro-North and LIRR the safest commuter railroads in the nation.

Despite the grievances, the MTA is still not on track to meet the 2015 deadline for PTC installation. In fact, the upgrades won’t even be done three years late, in line with one proposal floated in Congress to delay the mandate until 2018. (Another proposal would delay the mandate until 2020.)

The MTA just last month announced that it has awarded contracts to Bombardier and Siemens to develop and install the system, with Siemens claiming it won’t get done until 2019 — and that’s assuming all goes according to plan.

The MTA confirmed that date to Next City, with a spokesperson writing:

The PTC program requires Bombardier/Siemens to first develop and provide hardware and software necessary for the MNR and LIRR pilot programs. After the pilot and approval from the FRA, we will begin to deploy the wayside and onboard systems. Work begins now and will be completed in 2019, assuming successful pilots and FRA approval.

The MTA has pled poverty — critics of the PTC requirement throw around the term “unfunded mandate” — but like all legacy commuter railroads, the MTA’s Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road have had no trouble shelling out nearly $180 million each year (that number comes from 2010, the last year for which we could find information) in salaries to their formidable fleets of conductors.

There were three conductors plus the driver tending to just 150 passengers, for instance, on Sunday’s derailed train. Less labor-intensive fare payment systems rendered this sort of manpower unnecessary half a century ago. Had the MTA made the move five years ago, by now it could have saved enough money to pay for PTC without sacrificing planned capacity upgrades, with hundreds of millions in extra dough beyond that.

But rather than transitioning to an honor system for fare payment backed up by heavy fines, known as proof-of-payment ticketing and in use today in Europe and on new American commuter and light rail lines (and even some bus lines in New York City), legacy railroads like Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road continue to use the “extremely obsolete” conductor system, as University of Pennsylvania transportation engineering professor Vukan Vuchic once put it.

That means these railroads — or, more aptly, the railroads’ political bosses, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who wasted no chance to discuss the tragedy in front of TV cameras — choose to pay hefty salaries and benefits to the nearly 2,000 conductors rather than rock the boat with labor unions, management and riders. “The conductors stepping on and off the train, punching tickets, shouting — it’s very 19th century,” Vuchic said.

If it turns out that PTC would have prevented Sunday’s accident, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would do well to direct the MTA to quit complaining about the mandate and implement the safety measures as soon as possible. Better yet, he could push for the sort of productivity boosts — like doing away with conductors punching every ticket — that would allow the MTA to afford safety upgrades — be they PTC installation, or, if the cause turns out to be brake failure, better train maintenance or newer vehicles — without canceling much-needed capacity projects.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

Tags: new york cityinfrastructurepublic transportationtransit agenciesthe workstrainspublic safety

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