NJ Transit’s scramble to meet a year-end deadline to install a mandatory safety system called positive train control has drawn the attention of Congress.

The agency’s executive director, Kevin Corbett, was the only representative from a local or regional railroad to testify at a U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, at which lawmakers and federal auditors appeared concerned that NJ Transit won’t make it.

Should that happen, federal officials indicated at the hearing, NJ Transit trains would not be knocked off of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor come January. But the rail line would face hefty fines, levied at the daily equivalent of nearly $10 million a year.

“Now hopefully nobody’s going to run the clock out that far. And hopefully nobody’s even going to get past 12/31/18,” said Ronald Batory, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration and a resident of Mount Laurel. “But if they do, I would recommend nothing less than what I’ve sometimes referred to as full retail.”

Administration officials insist NJ Transit will meet the requirements of the Dec. 31 deadline – which, in turn, would earn it a two-year extension for getting the system fully tested and operational by the end of 2020.

“We will, we will, we will succeed,” Gov. Phil Murphy said, at the news conference where an audit of NJ Transit was released. “There is no Plan B. We will succeed.”

“Failure to meet our required number by Dec. 31 is simply not an option,” Corbett said.

“Make no mistake, we are all aware of the serious consequences to New Jersey Transit if we do not achieve these goals, including possible FRA fines and restrictions on our ability to operate on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor,” he said.

Scot Naparstek, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Amtrak, implied at the congressional hearing that NJ Transit would not be banned from the Northeast Corridor line if it doesn’t get everything in place before January.

“We have been encouraged by the progress we have seen over the last six months,” Naparstek said. “However, we’ve also began to work with New Jersey Transit on risk mitigations. We’ve had several meetings, and we will continue. Our plan is to continue to run New Jersey Transit as safely as possible come Jan. 1, 2019 on our territory.”

Naparstek said his agency will work with tenant railroads, such as NJ Transit, which will need an alternative schedule to ensure they’re operating safely. He said that Amtrak’s application for an alternative schedule will also qualify NJ Transit for the tracks they share and Amtrak owns.

Batory, of the FRA, said he couldn’t ban NJ Transit from operating even if it fails to make the deadline – but would fine it heavily, at the daily equivalent of close to $10 million a year.

“There will not be any cessation of service unless that carrier elects to do it itself. But the FRA will not and does not have the ability to impose that type of action,” Batory said.

“When it comes to penalties, you know, this has been a 10-year journey. It’s been like a soap opera. And we need to bring a conclusion to and get PTC 1.0 behind us,” he said. “And when I look at the regulatory fine schedule, it’s hard for me to rationalize anything less than the maximum fine, which is roughly about $27,000 a day.”

More specifically, the maximum fine is $27,904.

A federal law adopted nearly a decade ago requires the installation of positive train control on commuter and freight rail lines. The original deadline was the end of 2015, but it was extended.

To avoid fines, NJ Transit would have to get equipment installed on all trains. Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office, said NJ Transit is the largest of the at-risk railroads but not alone in not having a contingency plan.

“They have about 122 more locomotives to equip. And if you do the math, they’ve been able to do about 30 a month with a very accelerated pace,” Fleming said. “So I think it’s going to be really challenging for them to meet the December deadline. And as schedules get more and more compressed, more impact to service is likely.”

NJ Transit has already reduced service twice in the interest of meeting the PTC deadline. First, the entire Atlantic City Rail Line was suspended until next year. And as of Sunday, more cutbacks went into effect across the train system.

Fleming said that in addition to a shortage of NJ Transit engineers, many railroads are dealing with vendor shortages, as there are only around seven companies that can provide the type of equipment and expertise needed for PTC systems, so demand is exceeding capacity.

“New Jersey, I think, has the biggest mountain to climb,” Fleming said.

Meeting the year-end deadline for a two-year extension requires meeting six criteria, with installation of equipment on trains being just one of them.

Rail lines also must get employees properly trained; Corbett said 99 percent of engineers and signal technicians had been PTC-trained as of two weeks ago. They also must get all right-of-way equipment installed; as of Sept. 30, the state was 82 percent of the way there.

They are also supposed to initiate advanced ‘revenue service demonstration’ testing on at least one of their territories by the end of the year. Corbett said NJ Transit is “continuing substantial field and other testing (that are) laying the groundwork” for such a demonstration.

A railroad can also get approval for using substitute criteria.

Batory said most railroads in the country will need to request an extra two years to complete testing, get certified, activate the system across all their routes and meet interoperability requirements.

He said reviewing an application for an alternative schedule takes 90 days, which includes 45 days for the FRA to respond, then 45 days for a response from the railroads.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

More From New Jersey 101.5 FM