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Editorial: Give Metra more time on safety upgrades

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If Congress were a Metra passenger, we can imagine it demanding top-quality service while refusing to pay for a ticket.

Our nation’s lawmakers have done essentially that by ordering cash-strapped Metra and the rest of the nation’s railroads to install a hugely expensive “positive train control” system while refusing to foot the costs.

Like the Little Engine that Could, Metra has been gamely trying to meet a year-end deadline, but the job has been too expensive and too technically challenging. Congress should extend the deadline to give Metra and other railroads a chance to get the job done.

Positive train control, which is a good idea, uses GPS and other technology to automatically slow or stop trains to prevent some types of accidents, including train-to-train collisions and derailments caused by speed. Nationwide, railroads have spent more than $5 billion on it, but the job is far from finished. If Congress doesn’t extend the deadline, Metra and some other railroads say they probably will have to shut down on Jan. 1.

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Metra has spent millions of dollars to date, which is a lot for a system that doesn’t have enough cash on hand to get its tracks and trains up to snuff. Congress should take note that Metra has worked hard to get as far as it has.

Congress enacted the legislation ordering the installation of positive train control in 2008. Setting a deadline at the end of 2015 simply wasn’t realistic.

At the start, there were delays just writing the rules. More time went by as railroads waited to get their plans approved. Railroads had to go through a cumbersome Federal Communications Commission process to get radio spectrum (Metra still doesn’t know if it has enough). And the technology had to be designed; it wasn’t something they could go buy at Radio Shack.

Running the Metra system is more complicated than it looks to the commuters buried behind newspapers or plugged into phones. The 750 daily Metra trains on 11 routes have to pick their way through 500 freights and 50 Amtrak trains, all going their own way on 10 other railroads. A positive train control system must keep tabs on all that rolling stock.

Forcing the system to grind to a halt on Jan. 1 won’t do us any favors. Nor should Metra be forced to waste time making contingency plans. Extend the deadline now.

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