NJ Transit uses coronavirus downtime to make progress on safety system installation
The Positive Train Control system (PTC) uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains, and automatically enforce speed limits, and emergency stops. By Frank Pompa and Ramon Padilla, USA TODAY
NJ Transit, which has seen its train schedules dramatically reduced because of the coronavirus lockdown, is taking advantage of the freed-up rail lines to do more testing of a federally mandated safety system intended to prevent crashes.
And that increased testing schedule of positive train control could help the agency meet a fast-approaching deadline to get the system up and running. After the mandate came out in 2008, NJ Transit lagged in building out PTC, which uses software, satellites and trackside sensors to monitor the movement of the train and apply braking to prevent a crash or derailment.
For NJ Transit, the extra testing of the system is possible because trains that are normally carrying hundreds of thousands people a day are carrying a fraction of that, with only 10% of ridership, as people are working from home and avoiding nonessential travel.
"Certainly, we were looking for opportunities to make lemonade out of lemons," said Kevin Corbett, CEO and executive director of NJ Transit, adding the agency is "going to be able to do some testing in daylight hours for those gaps between Amtrak and our own schedule. PTC, as you rightly guessed, is the top priority in rail."
The move was addressed by Corbettafter a question about PTC was posed by Bob Gordon, a new board member, during a virtual operations and customer service committee meeting held Tuesday morning.
"We’re running a couple of test trains during the day, which we normally wouldn’t be able to do," said Ray Kenny, director of rail operations for NJ Transit. "It’s freed up some of our supervision and some of our equipment so we’re going to take advantage of that because obviously the situation we’re in, our ability to get testing done is the most critical activity for helping us meet the deadline that is within our control."
Most PTC testing has been completed at night, on the weekends or during the summer while the transit system has attempted to minimize the impacts on customers.
However, in order to reduce transit worker exposure to coronavirus, as more employees test positive for the virus and because of the 90% reduction in ridership after stay-at-home orders took effect in the region, the agency decided to reduce its schedules system-wide.
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A quiet Monday morning rush hour commute through Hoboken Transit Terminal, as workers are asked to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic. NorthJersey.com
This additional PTC work comes at a critical point for the agency, which is racing to complete the full installation of the automatic-braking software before the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline after facing setbacks last year from software bugging, cost overruns and years of delays from the previous administration.
NJ Transit was one of eight transit agencies around the country identified by the Federal Railroad Administration "at risk of not fully implementing a PTC system," according to a February update from the agency. A similar concern was raised in August by a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, who also noted at the time that there was "zero appetite in Congress to extend this" deadline again.
However, the agency did mark a significant milestone in February when the FRA approved the agency to move ahead with revenue service demonstration, or RSD, which is testing the braking software while passengers are on the train. That testing began on the Morris & Essex line from Summit to Denville in March, according to the agency.
If the agency does not meet the end-of-year deadline, it could face fines.
Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.