Elected officials urged Congress Monday to give Metra the time and money it needs to implement a federally mandated safety technology before a Dec. 31 deadline hits that could trigger financial penalties.
The comments from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Dan Lipinski, both Illinois Democrats, came after the head of the Federal Railroad Administration warned last month that railroads could face penalties of up to $25,000 a day for failure to meet the deadline.
Joining them at Metra’s LaSalle Street Station was Metra Chairman Martin Oberman, who warned that the unusually complicated technology that Metra needs to implement so-called “positive train control” at an estimated cost of $350 million doesn’t even exist yet.
The Los Angeles Metrolink trains have positive train control, but they have yet to achieve the “interoperability” that Metra needs to communicate between passenger and freight trains that use the same tracks, said Bruce Marcheschi, Metra’s chief engineering officer.
“There has been testing on it, but they have had critical software errors,” Marcheschi said.
PTC uses global positioning satellites and other technology to automatically stop or slow trains in dangerous situations.
Federal officials have said PTC could have prevented an Amtrak train from traveling at 106 mph as it approached a 50 mph curve in May. Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured when the train derailed in Philadelphia.
Metra has yet to receive any federal funding specifically tied to PTC, officials noted. Its 10-year modernization plan, announced last year, includes annual fare increases to help pay for positive train control’s $350 million price tag, plus an additional $15 million to $20 million a year to maintain the technology.
Every dollar Metra spends on PTC is money that could be used for an estimated $12 billion in other maintenance needs over the next decade, Oberman said.
Metra expects to have a positive train control system in place 2019, with some lines implementing it before then, Oberman said.
Durbin urged that railroads that come up with a concrete plan on how to implement PTC not be fined if they miss the Dec. 31 deadline.