Seven weeks to the PTC deadline, will NJ Transit make it? Shut down, huge fines are at stake
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 has seven weeks to the day to fully install its positive train control system, or else face a shut down and $27,000-a-day fines in 2021.
NJ Transit officials and project managers from Parsons and Alstom, the contractors hired to install and test the system and its software, have for months exuded confidence that they will make the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline, which was repeated at Thursday's board meeting.
"As I have in previous meetings, I’m happy to report that we're on target for PTC certification by the end of the year," said Terry Fetters, project manager for Parsons.
However, the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency overseeing the mandated installation of the safety-braking system, has twice identified NJ Transit as "at risk" of missing the end-of-year deadline, according to its quarterly updates. A third quarter update from the FRA is expected to be released in the coming days.
PTC is a complicated system of software, radios and transponders that communicate to slow trains when they should be braking around certain curves or stops, and became required technology for certain railroads in 2008.
Some of NJ Transit's 12 train lines are not yet in extended revenue service demonstration (ERSD), the testing of the automatic-braking system during normal service hours with passengers on trains. Those train lines — Atlantic City, North Jersey Coast and the spur to the Meadowlands sports complex — are still in field testing, which often takes place at night when no passengers are aboard.
None of NJ Transit's rail lines have proven they can operate successfully with other rail lines' PTC systems, like Amtrak and Conrail. Testing with other rail lines is the final step that must take place before Dec. 31. But Fetters said there are early bright spots in early testing on this front.
"Our work on all the interoperability requirements for the project are going well, this progress is demonstrated by the Conrail-Lehigh line successfully entering ERSD yesterday," Fetters said. "The Norfolk southern testing is going well and the Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor boundary testing has been successful so far, and the NJ Transit vehicle testing continues with good results."
A request for the Meadowlands line to enter ERSD was submitted yesterday and the North Jersey Coast Line is scheduled to begin ERSD on Nov. 19. Combined that will bring about 80% of the required track miles in the ERSD phase of testing.
The Atlantic City and the Southern Tier lines are scheduled to enter ERSD on Dec. 7, Fetters said.
In addition, there are still employees that have to be trained on the software, transponders that have to be installed, and other vehicles retrofitted for the equipment.
The agency has taken advantage of reduced service and low ridership during the pandemic to accelerate this work, but some are skeptical if it will be enough.
What's at stake if they miss the deadline
Suspended service and fines that would be imposed if the installation is not completed would exacerbate NJ Transit's current financial condition and low ridership.
Since the pandemic wreaked havoc on the region in March, rail ridership has plummeted about 75% compared to last year. As a result, revenue is also down significantly and this coming year the agency anticipates $860 million in revenue loss from decreases in ticket sales.
Hefty fines for failure to install PTC would add to the already expensive price tag associated with this years-long project that is estimated to cost $500 million, according to a state audit. The contract with Parsons has already undergone eight change orders and resulted in tens of millions in settlements.
Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, voiced skepticism last year about NJ Transit's progress on PTC. She last spoke with agency officials in September and they voiced optimism about making the deadline, but Homendy said they have a lot of work still to do.
"NJ Transit has five tenant railroads and they all need to be interoperable on their system that obviously takes time and that cuts it close," she said. "I expressed my concerns, they seemed optimistic that they would be able to meet the deadline, and I hope that’s the case."
Safety is also at stake.
Without PTC, the NTSB says preventable crashes and possible deaths would persist — an issue the organization is bringing attention to with a series of tweets highlighting past crashes where the technology could have saved lives.
"Lives are at stake and there’s no reason for another accident to occur and lives to be lost or people to be severely injured — there’s no reason at all," Homendy said.
Homendy added that after Dec. 31, the work doesn't stop.
"The network is changing, so as they add different service that’s going to bring new challenges with new train sets, all of that needs to be addressed," she said. "It’s not a fix come Dec. 31. ... It’ll have to be constantly monitored and maintained."
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.