This summer was a tough one for riders of Metra’s BNSF line. Passengers felt confused and frustrated and they dealt with delays, packed trains and a very crowded Union Station.
It was the first Metra line to fully roll out Positive Train Control, or PTC. PTC is a federally mandated system designed to stop a train before certain crashes could occur, including train-to-train collisions and deadly derailments like the one in Washington last year where the engineer missed an upcoming speed reduction.
Dave Martinez is a manager of regulatory compliance for Metra.
“BNSF led the industry nationwide and there’s been some questions as to why did we go to the heaviest used line first (for PTC),” he said. “It wasn’t directly our choice to go there but by going to that line we’re learning lessons that are going to help us on all of our lines.”
The system uses GPS and communication software in conjunction with hundreds of wayside sensors to monitor the journey ahead including track grade and curve, the trains stopping distance, speed changes, construction zones and signals. If a train is getting too close to a speed change or work zone, the system will warn the engineer and then stop the train.
The system monitors every foot of track Metra trains travel across.
PTC is now required on all railroads in the U.S., passenger and freight, including the 14 which operate in the Chicago region.
But the problems and delays riders have noticed in recent months mean the added high tech safety means less money for upgrades to trains and the physical infrastructure. PTC costs Metra $400 million by the time it’s fully deployed and $15 to $20 million a year to operate it.
Metra CEO Jim Derwinski said upgrades will largely have to wait until a funding partner can be found. It’s been nearly a decade since the state legislature passed a capital bill to pay for transportation infrastructure.
While Metra’s 2019 operating budget does not include a fare increase, the board has warned the system is deteriorating and might have to downsize unless capital shortfalls are addressed..
Meanwhile PTC is rolling out on the Rock Island line now and Southwest service by the end of the year. And some schedules, like on the BNSF, may be affected.