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Bronx derailment

How does positive train control technology work?

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Investigators say have no doubt speed played a role in Sunday's deadly Metro-North train derailment. The train was traveling 80 mph as it entered a 30-mph zone.

Passengers could do nothing as the cars flipped over and ran off the track. They were at the mercy of its brakes and the engineer.

Joel Zaritsky was riding in the fourth car and knew the train was going too fast around the curve in Spuyten Duyvil.

"Next thing I know I felt the car come off the tracks," he told Good Day New York. "The car started to go to the right and I could see at a very high rate of speed the gravel and the ground coming toward my head."

It is still unclear if the crash was the result of human error or mechanical failure. But rail experts argue the tragedy may have been prevented if Metro-North had automated crash-avoidance technology called positive train control.

A video shows a similar technology being used on the L subway train in New York City. New Jersey Transit is also testing the tech. So how does it work? Before the train leaves the terminal, it downloads what is called a physical characteristics file that has every aspect of the route from curves, to speed limits, and track work changes. With the help of GPS and WiFi, the engineer is notified of any changes. For example, if the train is going too fast, the technology will tell the operator to slow down. If the engineer doesn't respond, the system will automatically apply the brakes.

"The idea is the train would automatically slow in a situation exactly like Sunday," said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y. He serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

In 2008, the Congress passed a law mandating Positive Train Control for commuter and freight railroads. The deadline for installation is 2015.

But just last month, the MTA awarded $428 million in contracts to develop the system for Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. The agency is asking for an extension on the deadline to 2018, saying installation across the 1,000 rail cars and 1,200 miles of track will take a lot of time and money.

Maloney is introducing new legislation that would provide funding for rail systems to get it up and running faster.

"My legislation does a very simple thing, says this $35 billion pool of low-interest financing will explicitly be made available for implementation of positive train control so that we can save lives," Maloney said.

The Senate passed the bill last year, so Maloney said he knows it has enough support, but the previous Congress failed to get it done.

A spokesperson from the MTA said that more funding to install the system would be helpful. But it is unclear if more money will speed the process along.

Right now the MTA is in the beginning design stages and expects the technology won't be fully operational until 2018.

The MTA's Aaron Donovan, the deputy director for external communications, issued this statement about positive train control: "The MTA began work to install Positive Train Control on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad in 2009. To date, the MTA has budgeted nearly $600 million for elements of PTC installation, including a $428 million procurement last month for a system integrator. Full implementation is estimated to cost $900 million, and the MTA will make sure the appropriate funding is made to implement PTC on the most aggressive schedule possible. However, implementing PTC by the 2015 deadline will be very difficult for the MTA as well as for other commuter railroads, as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both concluded. Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and LIRR, and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTC has not been made available. The MTA will continue its efforts to install PTC as quickly as possible, and will continue to make all prudent and necessary investments to keep its network safe."

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