The deadly commuter train crash in New York reinforces the urgency for Metra and other commuter railroads across the country to install a federally mandated safety system designed to prevent such wrecks.
Congress has ordered U.S. railroads to install a "fail-safe" system called positive train control by the end of 2015, but Metra and many other railroads have lobbied for an extension, citing the high cost and sophisticated technology involved.
Pushing the deadline to 2018 would provide more time to implement the safety system, known as PTC, "the largest, most complex technical effort ever undertaken" by the U.S. rail industry, according to the Association of American Railroads.
But Sunday's accident in New York -- in which a Metro-North commuter train derailed after barreling into a sharp curve at 82 mph, killing four passengers and injuring more than 60 -- will make Congress wary of extending the federal deadline as hoped, experts say.
The federal mandate was prompted by the 2008 collision of a Metrolink commuter train and a freight train in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles. Twenty-five people were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board has wanted PTC on U.S. railroads for more than 20 years. Since 2004, PTC could have prevented or mitigated more than 20 train accidents that took 57 lives, injured at least 1,000 and caused millions of dollars in damages, the agency says.
PTC also would have prevented two derailments that occurred on Metra in 2003 and 2005, killing two passengers and injuring dozens, according to the federal agency.
In both cases, the NTSB found that Metra engineers failed to heed signals warning them to slow their trains.
Metra officials say the agency doesn't have the money or ability to install PTC on all 11 lines by the end of 2015. It could face unspecified penalties if it misses the deadline.
The Metra price tag for PTC also keeps rising, recently hitting nearly $235 million. There isn't enough state and federal money to pay for the safety system while ensuring that the rest of Metra's equipment and infrastructure is operating safely and reliably, officials insist.
"I think it's pretty obvious that we just don't have the money to meet that mandate by the end of 2015," Metra board member Jack Schaffer said Tuesday. "I'm not sure the technology is in place yet either.
"If PTC works, like experts tell us it would, I'd like to have it tomorrow morning. But it's going to take (millions) that Metra doesn't have," Schaffer said.
At a news conference Tuesday in New York City, the top federal official investigating the Metro-North accident said it's possible that PTC could have prevented the derailment. PTC is a "proven technology ... that can prevent over-speed derailments," NTSB board member Earl Weener said.
NTSB investigators interviewed the Metro-North engineer Tuesday, but Weener would not speculate on the cause, including whether human error was involved or if the engineer fell asleep or was distracted at the controls.
Using GPS, on-board radios, computers and track-side equipment, PTC is designed to automatically stop or slow a train when a collision or derailment is imminent, experts say. The system would override action or inaction by an engineer.
Experts say one of the biggest obstacles to installing PTC is "interoperability" -- getting the many different railroad systems to communicate with each other. The railroads also must secure adequate bandwidth for radio communications. That means Metra's PTC system must be compatible with systems used by Amtrak and freight lines operating on the same rails.
Metra's interim executive director, Don Orseno, said Sunday's derailment in New York was the topic of safety discussions between Metra operations officials and its partner freight railroads, which operate four of the 11 commuter lines.
"We're engaging everybody to make sure we're providing a safe operation," Orseno said.
Metra officials say they have been attempting a balancing act, allocating a portion of scarce capital funding to PTC while also spending to keep equipment in good condition, update stations and replace bridges.
Orseno said Metra already has spent about $27 million for PTC equipment and project management. The agency's 2014 budget allocates $46 million for PTC, out of an overall capital program of $207 million.
Among passenger lines, Amtrak and Los Angeles' Metrolink plan to have PTC running by the 2015 deadline.
Metrolink has received a significant amount of funding from California to pay for PTC, experts say.
If Congress does not extend the PTC deadline, Metra will not be able to install the system on all 11 lines by the end of 2015, Orseno said.
The lines that will likely get PTC first are the four operated by the Union Pacific and BNSF Railway, because the freight railroads are farther along with implementing the safety system, Orseno said.
Nationwide, officials estimate it will cost at least $13.2 billion to install PTC on about 60,000 miles of track and 18,000 locomotives used by 38 freight, intercity passenger and commuter railroads.
Although Congress required railroads to install PTC, it never appropriated any federal money for the project, prompting howls from critics such as Metra's Schaffer.
"It's the biggest unfunded mandate I've ever seen," he said.
Still, the latest accident "creates a disincentive for Congress to ... push for a delay," said one Washington, D.C., transportation consultant.
"If something goes wrong again, God forbid, the elected officials who voted for the delay will end up wearing the jacket," the consultant said.
(c) 2013 McClatchy News Service