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MBTA plans safety upgrade for commuter rail

“Positive train control” systems could prevent fatal derailments of commuter rail trains.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority plans to spend an estimated $451.3 million to install technology meant to prevent accidents such as the Amtrak derailment that killed eight people in Philadelphia in May.

The fiscal control board that oversees the agency on Monday voted 4-0 to approve the contract to install what’s known as “positive train control” on all commuter rail lines that don’t already have it. The technology is designed to automatically slow trains on certain stretches of track.

The project could mean weekend shutdowns for commuter rail lines starting in March 2017 and continuing into 2018. Officials said the shutdowns would accelerate installation and save money.


MBTA officials said they expect the project to be complete in 2020, making the agency among the last major railroads across the country to install the federally mandated technology.

The increased costs come as transit advocates are already worried about fare hikes and are urging that they be kept to a minimum.

MBTA officials made it clear Monday that the costs will become a burden for the agency. Gerald Polcari, chief procurement officer for the MBTA, called the federal law requiring it an “unfunded mandate.”

“Do we have the funds for this?” he said. “No.”

The law requiring the technology was passed in 2008, and it was thrust into the spotlight this year when an Amtrak train derailed while traveling too quickly over a curve, killing eight people and injuring about 200 others. The National Transportation Safety Board said that positive train control could have prevented the accident.

Under the 2008 law, transit agencies had to finish implementing the technology by 2015 — yet so many cash-strapped agencies were behind that Congress recently passed an extension.

Positive train control, which must be installed on trains, tracks, and signals, is not new to the MBTA. Amtrak installed the technology on the Northeast Corridor tracks that run from New Haven to Boston, which includes the MBTA’s Providence/Stoughton line, according to David Diaz, a vice president with LTK Engineering Services, a firm helping the MBTA with the project.


But the system has 12 other commuter lines operating without the new technology.

The installation contract represents $338.5 million of the overall $451.3 million cost. The T will also need an additional $112.9 million for consultant services; financial support to help Keolis, the commuter rail operator, with the project; MBTA staff support; and contingency costs.

The additional expenditure comes as the governor-appointed control board figures out ways to cut costs and increase revenue. The agency spends nearly $2 billion annually and recently estimated it would take about $7.3 billion to fully upgrade its trains, tracks, and other infrastructure.

To fund the positive train control work, the MBTA plans to borrow federal money through programs created to finance projects. One of those programs, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, would cover about a third of the costs. MBTA officials said they could look into a combination of loans, as well as using other internal funds.

The costs will continue to grow once the technology is installed. According to officials, Keolis would need to spend about $12 million a year to maintain the technology.

Asked whether the extra costs will affect Keolis’s contract, company spokeswoman Leslie Aun directed questions to the MBTA. Agency officials did not immediately comment.


State Representative William Straus of Mattapoisett, who is cochairman of the Legislature’s transportation committee, said the large cost of the project shows how much the MBTA is in need of substantial investment.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge for the administration to come up with a financing plan if they limit themselves to simply changing operations and looking for efficiencies,” he said. “They’re good things, but I don’t think it will find you the kind of money that the system needs.”

In December, the MBTA’s control board will lay out a plan for closing its deficit, which will include cost controls and possibly fare increases.

Such hikes have worried transit advocates, several of whom on Monday urged the fiscal control board to raise fares by no more than 5 percent. Rafael Mares, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said he believes a state law allows the MBTA to increase fares by 5 percent every two years, at most.

But state transportation department lawyers and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack note that the language of the law says the MBTA can increase fares only every two years or only at a rate of 5 percent annually. They believe that means the MBTA could hike fares by 10 percent every two years.

That interpretation is also supported by key legislators, including Straus.

“I don’t think there’s any indication whatsoever that that’s what they’re thinking of, but that’s the size of the ballpark,” Straus said.


Also on Monday, MBTA officials said they are hiring a company to find out why the agency spends about 1.7 times more on bus maintenance than the average spent by other large urban public transit systems.

Officials revealed the agency spent about $40.81 per hour on maintaining its 1,060 buses in 2013. That compares with an average of $24.32 for 71 other public transit agencies in urban areas, according to the National Transit Database’s 2013 figures.

The 2013 figures were the most current available.

The MBTA’s chief administrator, Brian Shortsleeve, called the differences between the agencies “stark” but said the MBTA is not yet ready to propose ways to drive down the costs.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.