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AAR report says 2015 PTC deadline will not be met

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
April 21, 2014

Not surprisingly, the December 31, 2015 deadline for freight railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) technology on 40 percent of its network, as per a mandate from the Federal Railroad Administration will not be met. That was the chief takeaway of a report from the Association of American Railroads issued last week.

The objective of PTC systems is to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, and incursions into roadway work limits. PTC sends and receives a continuous stream of data transmitted by wireless signals about the location, speed, and direction of trains, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). PTC systems, added the FRA, utilize advanced technologies including digital radio links, global positioning systems and wayside computer control systems that aid dispatchers and train crews in safely managing train movements.

A mandate for PTC systems was included in House and Senate legislation-H.R. 2095/S. 1889, The Rail Safety and Improvement Act of 2008. The legislation was passed shortly after a September 12, 2008 collision between a freight train and a commuter train in Los Angeles. And it calls for passenger and certain hazmat rail lines to take effect by 2015 and authorizes $250 million in Federal grants.

In its report, the AAR said a one-year moratorium on installing 20,000 communication antennas imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was then followed by a federal approval process mandated by the FCC, has subsequently delayed the implementation of nationwide interoperable PTC. And due to these challenges the AAR explained that by 2015 PTC will be installed on only 20 percent of the freight rail, and PTC, network, rather than the Congressionally-mandated goal of 40 percent.

The AAR and its Class I members have made it clear for some time that its chances of meeting the original deadline were less than likely.

“Everyone in the industry is greatly frustrated at the inability to move forward and do what we need to do to advance PTC installation,” said Association of American Railroads President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger in a statement. “It’s been two steps forward, three steps back for months and we simply don’t have the certainty we need to move ahead and get PTC tested, fully functioning, certified and ready to go.”

Last July, Hamberger told a Senate Commerce Committee panel that the 2015 target date for railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) technology may be somewhat overly ambitious.

The Committee paid heed to Hamberger, with Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD) and Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Mark Pryor (D-AR) introducing legislation, entitled the Positive Train Control Extension Bill, that would push back the statutory deadline for PTC implementation on roughly 50,000 miles of U.S. railroads to December 31, 2020 as well as offer up an optional two-year extension should approval from the Federal Railroad Administration be granted.
Also covered in this bill, according to its language, was an extension for short line railroads that operate on PTC-mandated track.

To date, the AAR said the freight rail industry has spent roughly $4 billion on PTC installation and added that the industry expects to install PTC technology on about 60,000 miles of mainline track.

Some significant areas of progress freight railroads have made on PTC, according to the AAR are:
-installing or partially installing PTC equipment on 50 percent of the locomotives on which it will be required;
-deploying one third of the wayside units that will be required;
-replacing half of the signals needed for implementation and
-mapping most of the track that will be equipped with PTC

The Associated Press reported that the backlog is due in part to the FCC requiring railroads to ensure that each PTC antenna will not disturb “sites of importance” to Native Americans. The report said that the FCC has yet to determined how the antennas are to be reviewed, the association said. The majority of the antennas are between 10- and 60-feet tall, according to the report, and roughly 97 percent are proposed to be located on railroad property. And in January, the FCC proposed an alternative process for 565 federally recognized Native American tribes to review PTC antennas in an effort to speed up approvals, the report stated.

PTC has been commonly referred to as the “unfunded mandate” in railroad circles. A major concern of freight railroads has been that PTC rules finalized in January 2010 required PTC on sections of tracking where the cost is not justified, according to a March 2011 Wall Street Journal report.

At the 2012 RailTrends Conference hosted by Progressive Railroading magazine and independent rail analyst Tony Hatch, Deborah Hersman, former Chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said that the technology for improved railroad safety is already there.

But what is needed, she said, is the will.

“The railroad community should have solved this by now,” she said. “Some of you have been involved in PTC pilots or tests dating back decades. 20 years ago I worked for members of Congress that supported these types of programs. We can do better. It is time to refocus on rail safety and [PTC]. The rails are safer and stronger, but there is still some distance to go. Railroads have so many tremendous growth opportunities and a role to play in our nation’s economy and its future. [Rails] could be carrying more of the load and carrying it more safely and efficiently.”

Hersman added that PTC could be key in reducing delays in costs, raising effective capacity, increasing reliability, improving customer satisfaction and energy utilization, reducing emissions, increasing security, and making railroads more economically viable.

“A fully implemented PTC can be a win-win for society and the railroads,” she said.

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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