Equipment problems hamper key commuter rail safety project
Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials are worried the agency will miss a key deadline to install a federally required safety system on the commuter rail, with testing of the long-planned system delayed by an equipment issue.
The new positive train control system, known as PTC, uses a high-tech network to ensure trains don’t collide. The $459 million project was supposed to be fully installed and operational by the end of next year, but hardware and software problems could threaten that timeline, officials told the MBTA’s governing board Monday.
The key problem is faulty equipment, built by the international conglomerate Siemens, a subcontractor on the project, that is designed to relay information about train locations and speeds.
“We are concerned it might impact the schedule,” MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said. “Right now we are still on schedule to complete PTC on time, but obviously we need to solve this problem.”
More than a decade ago, the Federal Railroad Administration required commuter rail systems across the country to install PTC systems to prevent railroad collisions. Most transit agencies, including the MBTA, have struggled to meet earlier deadlines and have received extensions.
But further delay would be a setback for the MBTA, which has stressed that it needs to improve its record on completing major infrastructure projects. Hiccups with equipment installed by a subcontractor have also delayed the roll-out of new Orange Line trains, another highly anticipated project.
Other agencies have faced struggles with Siemens equipment. Board members at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority have threatened to cut off business to the company because of similar problems, and Siemens has issued two nationwide recalls related to the hardware problem in recent months.
The FRA said federal officials have been in regular contact with Siemens about the problem, and will soon visit a Siemens factory “to help oversee the ongoing corrective actions.”
In Massachusetts, the problem has delayed testing for the project on the northern side of the commuter rail, said Karen Antion, the MBTA’s project manager.
The southern side seems to be less of an issue because it has different signaling equipment and requires less rigorous testing, the MBTA said. But even minor software updates could cause delays because Siemens is taking months to process them. The MBTA recently received Siemens equipment back from recall, and so far the results have not been promising.
“We had hoped today to be able to stand in front of you and say, ‘after two recalls, we’ve put the equipment back on the vehicles and it appears the root cause has been found and fixed,’ ” Antion said. “But the data is not positive ... the performance is inconsistent and it’s not in compliance with the specifications.”
MBTA chairman Joseph Aiello said the news was very disappointing and warned Siemens that the MBTA will act if the problems are not fixed. “If anybody thinks we’re going to play second fiddle to New York . . . we will not be shy about exercising our rights,” he said.
John Paljug, who oversees Siemens’s North American mobility management unit, told MBTA board members that the company is urgently seeking to solve the problem, but cautioned that it will take another week of testing to determine if the recalls resolved the issue.
“Our latest delivery here, we only have four days, five days of data on four cars,” he said. He added that an “A-team” of engineers would be reviewing the problems this week and that the equipment has passed third-party inspections.
Chrystal Kornegay, an MBTA board member, said that Siemens must consider solutions beyond tinkering with the existing equipment.
“That sounds great, except when you get it on the ground, it doesn’t work,” she said. “At some point we have to have a conversation about, this thing doesn’t work, and what do we do about it?”
Also Monday, the MBTA board advanced two other significant projects on the commuter rail: $32 million to build a new Chelsea commuter rail station that is tied to Silver Line service in the city, and some $78 million to overhaul 27 locomotives.