Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The state’s Rail Runner Express is in danger of missing a federal deadline to implement required safety equipment, potentially costing the commuter railroad thousands of dollars in the process.
By the end of 2020, all railroads are expected to fully implement Positive Train Control, or PTC, a safety system meant to prevent trains from derailing or crashing into one another. In the event of human error, the system can take control and adjust to avoid a crash.
The Federal Railroad Administration has issued multiple letters to the Rio Metro Regional Transit District and lists it as one of only two railroads at risk of missing the Dec. 31 deadline, the other being New Jersey Transit.
Railroads originally had until Dec. 31, 2018, to finish installing the system but could request a two-year extension, and many did.
FRA has four criteria for determining the risk of a railroad not meeting the deadline: miles of track where PTC is operational, technical issues, the interoperability of PTC systems and submission of a PTC Safety Plan.
So far, 0% of Rail Runner’s 95 miles of track is operational for PTC, and the railroad missed a deadline to submit a required PTC Safety Plan, according to Terry Doyle, director of Rio Metro, which oversees operation of the Rail Runner. It’s the only railroad to have none of its territory fully operational.
“I know FRA is worried,” Doyle told the Journal. “It’s their way of saying, ‘Hey, we need you to stay on top of it.’ ”
The main holdup, Doyle said, has been funding for the project.
The PTC project is expected to cost around $60 million, which Doyle said Rail Runner didn’t have yet.
Waiting for that money to arrive in the form of federal grants put Rail Runner behind many other railroads, and it has been slow to catch up. Doyle said much of the money was not available until early 2019.
“Most of the other railroads started this process way before,” he said. “They had a lot of systems already installed.”
But a January 2019 report by the Legislative Finance Committee states the Rail Runner was not the only railroad facing difficulties in installing PTC.
“While the Rail Runner is further behind other commuter railroads, it is not alone in requiring an extension,” the report says, adding that 14 railroads planned to start the process with less than a year before the deadline.
At the end of 2019, eight railroads were listed as being at risk of missing the deadline. Six have been removed due to progress in completing the project.
Doyle said, despite the delays, he expects the Rail Runner to have PTC up and running before the year is complete.
“We’re going to be tight,” he said.
Rail Runner has already installed PTC hardware in its locomotives and tracks, Doyle said. The system uses GPS to keep track of where trains are in relation to each other. This leaves the testing process, which was set to start last week. Doyle said can take upward of three months to complete.
Rail Runner has taken advantage of the pandemic-induced suspension of rider service to continue installing PTC, its website says, although its at-risk status has stayed the same since December.
Failure to meet the end-of-the-year deadline, could be costly for the Rail Runner.
An FRA spokesperson told the Journal any railroad that misses the deadline could face a fine of $29,912 for every day of noncompliance with PTC. FRA Administrator Ronald Batory told the U.S. Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee in 2018 that he planned to enforce fines on noncompliant railroads.
Batory said, however, that the FRA cannot impose restrictions on a railroad’s operations until 2022.
In the 14 years since the Rail Runner began operation, it has struck multiple vehicles and people on its tracks.
Doyle said PTC could not have prevented any of those collisions, as those instances rarely leave enough reaction time for PTC to be effective.
“When we turn the brakes on going 79 miles an hour,” he said, “it probably takes a little over a mile to come to a complete stop.”
And while it seems Rail Runner will be last to the finish line for PTC, Doyle said, there is a silver lining.
“I think we benefit from being one of the last railroads in,” he said. “There’s a lot of experience putting this in on other railroads.”
Rail Runner service is still suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic under the governor’s health orders.