'Brain' of Metra train crash-prevention system approved for $80 million

  • Positive train control might have prevented the fatal derailment of a Metro-North commuter train car in New York City in late 2013.

    Positive train control might have prevented the fatal derailment of a Metro-North commuter train car in New York City in late 2013. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/23/2015 5:29 AM

A crash-prevention system for trains isn't cheap, as an $80 million contract approved by Metra directors Wednesday showed.

Metra board directors hired Parsons Transportation Group to develop a "system integrator" that will weave the different components of a complex automatic braking system into one.

 

But that's not the entire cost of Positive Train Control, a safety system mandated by Congress after a 2008 fatal train crash in southern California. With PTC, engineers will be warned of a dangerous situation such as speeding. If preventive action isn't taken, brakes will be applied automatically.

Metra executives said they had send out multiple requests for proposals and received interest from a number of companies. But because of the specialized nature of the work, Parsons was the sole company bidding to be the prime contractor.

PTC is a blend of multiple parts including onboard equipment such as radios and computers, a railroad's back-office computer system that contains information on speeds and tracks, wayside equipment such as radios mounted on poles along the tracks, and GPS systems.

"The system integrator will take all those segments and put them together," Chief Engineering Officer Bruce Marcheschi said. "It sounds easy, but they have to do the designing, the testing, the training. They have to map the entire railroad ... every inch has to be mapped."

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Parsons is working with other railroads to install system integrators, Metra CEO Don Orseno said, adding that PTC is a new experience for the entire industry.

Estimates for Metra's share of PTC have grown steadily but officials now think it will be less than $400 million in capital costs. Operating costs are projected to be about $20 million annually.

The law requires PTC on major freight and commuter railroads by the end of 2015 but the cost and logistics involved in installing it on thousands of miles of track across the nation have made it likely some won't make the deadline.

Congress has two different bills in the works that could extend that deadline, Metra Government Affairs Officer Sam Smith said.

Freight railroads are making progress on PTC installation and it's expected the BNSF and Union Pacific will have the system operating on the Metra tracks they own before the commuter rail agency does.

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