Metra threatens shutdown if safety deadline isn't extended

  • Commuters wait to board a Metra train at the Arlington Heights station.

      Commuters wait to board a Metra train at the Arlington Heights station. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Updated 9/21/2015 5:53 PM

Every commuter's nightmare could occur in 2016 with a threatened Metra shutdown if Congress doesn't extend the deadline to install a new braking system.

Known as Positive Train Control, the automatic braking program will override the engineer and stop a train if there's a pending crash.


While expected to save lives, it's expensive and complicated to put on trains and rail infrastructure, which is why no railroads, passenger or freight, are expected to meet a Jan. 1 deadline.

Congress mandated the safety system in 2008 after a fatal train crash in southern California.

Metra officials on Monday threatened to cease running trains in 2016 if nothing changes because it would be breaking the law. The railroad would not be following federal safety rules if PTC is not present, chief counsel Sue-Ann Rosen said.

"I think Metra riders should be concerned and let their representatives know just how concerned they are," Chairman Martin Oberman said. The move isn't a solo one. Other railroads have warned of similar shutdowns as a strategy to nudge Congress into acting.

Given the outcry from riders and pushback from the freight industry, it's not likely railroads will end up shutting down Jan. 1.

But Metra leaders said they wanted to be proactive.

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"If you shut down, how will people get to work?" asked Director John Plante. "They'll get into their cars," he said, adding that it would work against the law's intent to save lives.

"More people die on the road than in trains."

Metra's salvo caught the attention of several lawmakers.

"It is obvious that Congress needs to act and provide commuter railroads with the necessary time and funding to implement this important technology," said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, adding he was working on a bipartisan letter urging House leadership to extend the deadline.

Sen. Dick Durbin "believes that Congress must take a close look at this issue before the end of the year, and any extension should be coupled with accountability measures," a spokeswoman said.

Metra expects to implement PTC in all trains by 2019, but it will be installed earlier on the BNSF and Union Pacific lines. The system will cost about $350 million.

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