Explainer: What NJ Transit Must Do to Get Up to Speed with Safety Technology

Carly Sitrin | December 6, 2016 | Explainer
Some railroad companies have made good progress on the installation of federally required safety mechanisms, but NJ Transit has a lot of catching up to do

NJ Transit Train
Since 2008, railroad companies nationwide have been required by the federal government to install updated safety technology on all of their commuter and freight lines. This safeguards against derailments, collisions, and other malfunctions by adding a mechanized signaling system called Positive Train Control (PTC) to stop a train in case of operator error.

While West Coast railroads have made the most progress — San Francisco’s Caltrain and Seattle’s Sounder have been among the most successful at installing and using PTC — East Coast commuter rail companies have been relatively sluggish about implementing these new methods.

In the wake of the tragic commuter train crash in Hoboken back in October, state and federal authorities have been putting pressure on New Jersey rail outfits to install safeguards on all state tracks. With a December 2018 mandatory installation deadline approaching, new data released by the Federal Railroad Administration this month shows NJ Transit is making little headway installing PTC technology.

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What is Positive Train Control? PTC is a GPS-based system of sensors along a stretch of track that collects and sends information via radio signal to an operating station about train speed, areas sectioned off for construction, and other data. If a train is moving too quickly or having trouble braking, onboard equipment in the locomotive is designed to slow or stop the train.

Implementing a PTC system involves several steps. These include laying fiber-optic cable; prototyping and producing equipment that will be installed in all cars; deploying so-called wayside interface units that pass the radio signals between the train’s onboard system and the station; acquiring a radio spectrum to send and receive the signals; and training engineers to use the system.

Historical Context: According to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, following several deadly train derailments in 2007 and 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said PTC could have prevented these accidents by providing a “safeguard against human error.”

In 2008, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act requiring PTC on about 60,000 miles of railroad track nationwide by December 31, 2015. In response, railroad companies pushed back, saying the unfunded mandate was impossible to achieve by that date, and they were given an extension to December 31, 2018.

What’s happening on New Jersey’s tracks? After a deadly crash in Philadelphia in May 2015, Amtrak has successfully installed PTC on nearly 450 miles of track between Washington and Boston —including New Jersey — with the exception of 56 miles of track between New Rochelle, NY, and New Haven, CT. The tracks between New Rochelle and New Haven are owned by the states of New York and Connecticut (in their respective jurisdictions); the line is operated/dispatched by Metro North Railroad.

New Jersey Transit, the nation’s largest statewide public transportation system and the third-largest transit system in the country, is lagging in PTC implementation.

Specifically, how is NJ Transit doing? According to the most recent quarterly report by the Federal Railroad Association, for the period ending on September 30, 2016, cumulative quantity data shows that no NJ Transit employees have been trained of the 1,100 required, no locomotives have been fully equipped and made PTC-operable of the 440 required, and no track segments have been completed and installed of the 11 required.

Jim Smith, spokesman for NJ Transit, says those numbers don’t reflect the prototyping and testing currently being done by the transit authority. He said that since the FRA report, NJ Transit has received lease approval authorization from the MTA for the 218-MHz radio spectrum necessary to send PTC signals. After securing this signal, the next steps for the railroad include installing and testing the demo track and moving more trains into the testing phase before production. He said NJ Transit is also working to lay the necessary fiber-optic cable; it has 195 miles remaining of the total 326 miles in the total NJ Transit system and train engineers.

NJ Transit has also retained Peter Cannito, former Metro-North president, to review the organization’s overall rail operations, and is currently recruiting a compliance officer.

Smith said NJ Transit is “committed to meeting the federally mandated deadline of December 31st, 2018 for implementation of PTC and we are talking steps to insure that we meet that deadline.”

How much will PTC cost? The FRA estimates full PTC implementation nationwide will cost approximately $14 billion. It also projects annual maintenance costs of $850 million. Using those numbers, the estimated capital cost of meeting the PTC mandate would be equal to the railroads’ total capital spending in a single year.

There are opportunities to save, however. Smaller freight companies often share track with the Class I commuter railroads, and experts say there is opportunity to commingle the two to save costs as with the shared passenger rail on the Northeast corridor. However, the FRA also says the infrastructure cost for just two of the five largest transit agencies operating on the corridor — Metro-North and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) — is estimated at $350 million and $100 million, respectively.

And it’s no secret NJ Transit has been struggling with funding lately. Leasing the required radio spectrum alone is expected to cost around $725,000 and Cannito will be paid $350 an hour for his services. Smith says the total estimated cost for the project in New Jersey falls between $250 million and $275 million.

Although the total 2017 capital budget for NJ Transit is $1.6 billion, only $72 million has been put aside for PTC. NJ Transit says the full cost has been already baked into its capital budget. The agency does not expect to use loans to finance the project.