Costly train safety upgrades will force some MBTA service disruptions

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BOSTON — Commuter rail riders can expect some weekend closures starting next spring as the MBTA embarks on a $459 million effort to bring the sprawling system into compliance with a federal safety mandate.

The commuter rail line leading to Providence, R.I., is the only line with positive train control, a requirement of the Federal Railroad Administration, according to Bradley Kesler, chief railroad officer for the T.

Kesler said the Providence line has had the control system since the start of Acela service, which runs along the eastern seaboard. Positive train control keeps trains from colliding into one another and from speeding dangerously, Kesler said.

Under the system in place along most Bay State commuter rail lines, a signal could indicate a 60 mile-per-hour limit even if there is a curve where trains should slow to 30 miles per hour, Kesler told the News Service.

“The only way you slow down today is the engineer knows that and slows down for it,” said Kesler, who said the signals are “too far apart” now to account for those variations.

Under positive train control (PTC), an engineer controls the train unless the train starts running outside the controls of the electronic signal system, at which point the technology will slow it to a halt, Kesler said.

The “overwhelming majority” of the MBTA’s commuter rail fleet is equipped to some extent with the necessary technology, said Kesler, who said “transponders” would be installed along rail lines about every mile.

The T plans to conduct installation work on two lines at a time beginning on the southern part of the system, starting April 2017.

Ansaldo STS last year was awarded a $338 million contract for work installing the technology, which the T plans to make operational by Dec. 31, 2020.

The entire commuter rail system handles roughly 130,000 trips per weekday, according to recent figures from the T.

Financing for the project includes about 80 percent from the federal government in the form of loans and grants, Kesler said.

The Federal Railroad Administration has a 2018 deadline for commuter rails to comply with the safety requirement. The T plans to meet the criteria for an extension that will push the deadline out to 2020, Kesler said.

The work will require collaboration with Keolis Commuter Services, the vendor that operates the commuter rail.

“Where’s the chain of custody over the investment, and where does the buck stop?” control board member Steven Poftak asked during the presentation. Kesler said ultimately the T owns the project.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service