Hoboken Crash No Barometer of Rail Safety, Group Says

By Stephanie Beasley

Oct. 4— Lawmakers shouldn't try to link a fatal train crash in Hoboken, N.J., and the public transit industry's implementation of anti-crash technology until a federal investigation has been completed, a major transit lobby group told Bloomberg BNA.

Passenger railroads' implementation of safety technology known as positive train control (PTC) or their lack of it came under intense scrutiny after a commuter train slammed into the Hoboken station on Sept. 29, killing one person and injuring more than a hundred others.

“Everyone should allow the investigation to occur before we make statements about what happened in Hoboken,” Randy Clarke, the American Public Transportation Association's assistant vice president of public safety, operations and technical services, said.

Commuter and freight railroads have until the end of 2018 to fully implement PTC. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said in a recent report that PTC has been installed on just 22 percent of passenger route miles in the U.S. and counted NJ Transit alongside a lot of other large transit agencies that have yet to install PTC, Clarke said the situation is too complicated to be accurately depicted with statistics. Though it looks like many agencies have not made progress, the data does not account for PTC equipment testing and other related activities, he said.

“The report itself probably doesn't give enough credit for the work that's done,” Clarke told Bloomberg BNA. “With that said, we know there is more work to be done.”

Latest From NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still in the “fact-gathering phase” of the Hoboken investigation, NTSB Vice Chairman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr said during an Oct. 2 press briefing.

The NTSB recovered one non-functioning data recorder from the site that couldn't help determine how fast the train was going at the time of the crash. Investigators located a second recorder on Oct. 4, but NTSB would not comment on whether it revealed information about the train’s speed. An accurate gauge of the train's speed could be crucial to determining whether PTC, which can halt speeding trains, might have prevented the accident. The NTSB, which supports broad use of PTC, has been careful to avoid suggesting positive train control could have prevented the crash.

“What we need to remember is PTC cannot prevent every train accident,” Dinh-Zarr said. “So we need to be very careful. We're going to look at this as we're careful with every accident to see if it affected this one. So we just don't have enough information yet.”

The NTSB is sifting through documents relating to the train's operational tests as well as mechanical, track signal and event recorder tests, Dinh-Zarr told reporters.

Yet, the uncertainty has not stopped lawmakers from trying to connect the Hoboken crash to the lack of positive train control on NJ Transit tracks.

Congress initially ordered all commuter and freight railroads to install PTC by the end of 2015. However, lawmakers voted to extend that deadline last year after rail service providers, including Amtrak and BNSF Railway Co. warned they would have to shut down some services without an extension. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Congress should not have made the change (See previous story, 09/30/16). Senators such as Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) also have said the Hoboken crash underscores the need for quick PTC implementation.

NJ Transit, Others Lag on PTC

NJ Transit missed a Jan. 26 deadline to submit a PTC implementation plan to the FRA. And in a quarterly report submitted to federal regulators in September, the railroad said it had not yet installed positive train control speed-enforcement software on its computers nor trained any employees to use the safety technology. The railroad is planning to test the positive train control software on two pilot prototypes—a control car and a locomotive used to pull trains—and is in the process of acquiring the spectrum needed to power the systems' wireless communications functions, according to its report.

In the wake of the accident it was unveiled that the FRA had audited NJ Transit and found dozens of safety violations. The FRA didn't immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA's request for further details on the audit results.

NTSB's Dinh-Zarr said the FRA audit will be part of the board's investigation of the Hoboken crash but added that NTSB's and the FRA's examinations of NJ Transit would remain separate.

NJ Transit is not the only major transit agency that appears to be lagging on PTC implementation. Neither the Long Island Rail Road nor Metro-North Railroad—both of which serve the larger New York City metropolitan area—have equipped any trains with PTC. The technology hasn't been installed on the tracks used by either agency either. The Maryland Area Regional Commuter has not submitted a PTC implementation plan to the FRA and has not submitted any data showing it has started the process.

Meanwhile the Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp. that services the Chicago metropolitan area has installed 16 percent of the radio spectrum towers it will need for wireless PTC communications to trains but has not met any implementation goals, according to the FRA's positive train control report.

Issues Deeper Than Money

Clarke said APTA would not make excuses for the railroad agencies but posited that many of the systems that appear to be lagging have some of the largest ridership numbers in the U.S., which means the agencies are juggling PTC implementation and related testing with daily services. Further PTC implementation is something that agencies are doing in addition to regularly scheduled maintenance and safety checks, Clarke said. There is a $86 billion backlog of upgrades needed to bring the nation's public transit systems into a “state of good repair,” he said.

The fact that many of the biggest public transit systems along the East Coast, like Metro-North, are also among the nation's oldest creates more challenges, Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation, said. He said it very expensive to retrofit all of the trains in those systems with PTC.

APTA has estimated that a total of $3.48 billion total would be needed to install PTC on all commuter rail tracks. The FRA has provided $650 million in grant funding to assist railroads with positive train control implementation since 2008. And a five-year surface transportation reauthorization law enacted in late 2015 provides an additional $199 million in PTC grants specifically for commuter railroads.

But putting the technology to work is more than a matter of just throwing money at it, according to Lewis. He said railroads also will need sufficient time to test the technology and to potentially identify any safety issues. They also will need to coordinate implementation plans in cases in which multiple agencies use the same tracks, Lewis said.

Congress also still needs to address the issues related radio spectrum access, APTA has said. The group has pressed Congress to order the Federal Communications Commission to provide free spectrum to commuter railroads. Lawmakers did not take that step when they extended the PTC deadline.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.