BOSTON — Technology that is used to prevent train accidents, already long behind schedule, won’t be up and running on MBTA commuter rail for at least two years, officials say.
The MBTA is under a federal mandate to install a Positive Train Control system on all of its lines. The technology uses antennae on locomotives, radio towers and track sensors to monitor train speeds and locations and to prevent collisions.
MBTA officials say hardware is being installed on the Rockport, Haverhill and Newburyport lines, with a goal of finishing by year’s end. But the system won’t go live until 2020.
MBTA contractors have installed hardware on at least 107 commuter rail locomotives, 22 of 108 radio towers, and along 38 of 394 miles of track, according to a quarterly report filed with the Federal Railroad Administration.
Last summer, equipment installation on the Newburyport/Rockport line was scheduled around the same time as a planned shutdown for repairs to the rail bridge that connects Beverly and Salem.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is testing the technology on its Stoughton and Lowell lines on weekends, and plans to expand testing to other areas as hardware is installed. That will require weekend shutdowns and service delays, officials say.
The systems use satellites and radio signals to monitor trains. If problems are detected, on-board computers take over to slow a train or bring it to a stop.
Congress mandated the technology be in place nationally by 2015, but funding delays prompted lawmakers to extend the deadline to Dec. 31 of this year. Rail operators can get an extension for another two years if they meet certain benchmarks.
MBTA officials declined to discuss the status of their system but have said they expect it to be operating statewide by the end of 2020.
Big price tag
The system, with a price tag of more than $459 million, is being installed by private contractor Ansaldo STS USA Inc. and funded mostly with federal loans. The MBTA is picking up about 20 percent of the cost, according to Keolis Commuter Services, which operates the commuter rail.
A spokeswoman for CSX — the national freight carrier that owns hundreds of miles of tracks throughout the state — couldn’t say how many tracks or trains have the technology installed, but the railroad expects to meet the federally mandated deadlines.
“It’s been quite a challenge, but we’re well on our way to making progress to meet the mandate,” said CSX spokeswoman Laura Phelps.
CSX, which operates more than 21,000 miles of rail lines in 22 states, has spent more than $2 billion on the systems to date, she said.
“We had to develop this on our own and ensure that it was compatible with other railroads and passenger rails, which was challenging,” Phelps said.
Amtrak has had the technology between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut, since 2000, when it debuted its high-speed Acela.
Nationwide, the rail industry has spent nearly $14 billion installing train control equipment over the past several years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The National Transportation Safety Board says the technology could have prevented 145 railroad accidents, saved an estimated 300 lives and averted more than 6,700 injuries over the past 45 years. The agency pressured Congress not to extend its 2015 deadline.
Rail safety experts say the technology will make train travel safer, though it can’t prevent every kind of crash, including derailments.
‘Not a panacea’
Allan Zarembski, professor at the University of Delaware’s College of Engineering, who specializes in rail safety, said the technology is not a panacea. He also noted that fatal train accidents are rare, only happening about once a year. About 90 percent of rail fatalities involve cars crossing tracks illegally or people trespassing, he said.
Zarembski said the unfunded mandate to install the technology adds to the woes of rail operators like the MBTA, which has an estimated $5.1 billion in debt.
“The MBTA doesn’t have a lot of fatal accidents, and it’s not sitting on a pile of money,” he said. “So the question is whether it’s a cost-effective decision to take money away from a cash-strapped transit agency that could be used to run the trains or for protecting the rails, ties or ballasts.”
A “significant portion” of the technology is already installed nationally, he said, but some operators still won’t meet the deadlines.
“A lot of railroads won’t have it in place,” he said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see what the (Federal Railroad Administration) does, because theoretically it can shut them down.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.