Deadline looming, NJ Transit rejected for rail funding grant

Already lagging behind in installing a mandatory emergency braking system by the end of the year, New Jersey Transit has been bypassed for a share of more than $200 million in federal grants aimed at helping railroads seeking to meet the same deadline.

The Federal Railroad Administration on Thursday announced $203 million in grants to 28 railroads to implement positive train control (PTC), the emergency braking system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments due to excessive speed and trains passing through switches left in the wrong position.

The grants were announced the same day the FRA released its status report on railroads' progress installing and testing PTC. The report ranked New Jersey Transit near the bottom of the list of 40 passenger and freight railroads.

A railroad administration spokesman didn't comment Friday on NJ Transit's application and explained that the agency only discloses information on applicants who receive grants. NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder confirmed a grant application had been submitted. Approximately $46 million in additional grants will be available later this year, the railroad administration said Thursday.

"We are continuously working with the FRA as we've made progress in the last six months," Snyder said. "We're going to continue to move forward and meet the federal requirements by Dec. 31."

After a 2008 commuter rail crash in California that killed 25 people, railroads initially were required to have the system implemented by the end of 2015. That deadline was pushed back to 2018, and currently some railroads, including NJ Transit, have been approved for a two-year extension to test the system on their routes. But they are required to fully install the system and complete employee training by Dec. 31.

In a progress report covering the period through June 30, the FRA reported Thursday that NJ Transit had completed just 34 percent of PTC hardware installation, ranking it behind all but two railroads. Seventy-four of NJ Transit's 282 locomotives were equipped and operable with the system, according the report.

Taking equipment and crews out of service for installation and training to meet the deadline has contributed to a recent uptick in train cancellations, angering commuters who already suffer regular delays on the crowded system, one of the nation's largest. The disruptions are expected to continue until the end of the year, NJ Transit officials have said.

NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett told state lawmakers last week that the agency had made considerable progress on PTC since he took over early in the year, when about 12 percent of the overall project had been completed. He estimated the current number at roughly 60 percent, which included hardware installation in locomotives, radio towers and trackside locations, and employee training.

Missing the deadline could lead to the FRA de-certifying the railroad, essentially shutting it down, Corbett told lawmakers.