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AAR says it remains committed to Positive Train Control implementation

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
February 28, 2013

While railroads are extremely focused on safety, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) said this week that representatives from major U.S. freight railroads told the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this week that the possibility of implementing fully interoperable positive train control (PTC) across the more than 60,000 route miles required by the Congressionally mandated 2015 deadline is not currently feasible.

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 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.

The AAR said that to date railroads have invested more than $2.7 billion in private capital to implement PTC by the 2015 deadline but concede that the challenges in doing so are significant.

These investments have gone towards implementation, including the design, development and testing of new communications technology, on-board computers, radios and back-office train dispatching software that allows each railroad’s PTC system to work together safely, the AAR said.

“Freight railroads are determined to safely implement PTC, and have been putting vast resources and energy behind efforts to do so,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger in a statement.  “But the fact is, it’s simply impossible to safely install a reliable, fully interoperable PTC system everywhere it is required by the 2015 deadline. There may be segments of track across the country that will be PTC operable by the 2015 deadline, but completely implementing PTC on the more than 60,000 route miles required by the mandate is still not possible by 2015.”

Despite the fact that PTC implementation is unlikely to occur by 2015, the AAR cited many positive signs of progress, including:
partially equipped 6,072 locomotives with PTC onboard equipment out of a total 18,100 locomotives involved in full implementation;
equipped 8,504 wayside locations with PTC wayside interface units out of 37,512 needed, and
acquired 2,775 220MHz base, wayside and locomotive radios out of the 56,035 that will be needed

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.

A report submitted to Congress by the Federal Railroad Administration in July 2012 outlined various reasons as to why it is unlikely that PTC will be fully installed and operational by the 2015 deadline.
In the report, the FRA stated that although the initial PTC Implementation Plans (PTCIP) submitted by the applicable railroads to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for approval stated they would complete implementation by the 2015 deadline, all of the plans were based on the assumption that there would be no technical or programmatic issues in the design, development, integration, deployment, and testing of the PTC systems they adopted.
“However, since FRA approved the PTCIPs, both freight and passenger railroads have encountered significant technical and programmatic issues that make accomplishment of these plans questionable,” the report noted. “Given the current state of development and availability of the required hardware and software, along with deployment considerations, most railroads will likely not be able to complete full RSIA-required implementation of PTC by December 31, 2015. Partial deployment of PTC can likely be achieved; however, the extent of which is dependent upon successful resolution of known technical and programmatic issues and any new emergent issues.”
The report identified various technical obstacles relating to PTC implementation: communications spectrum availability; radio availability; design specification availability; back office server and dispatch availability; track database verification; installation engineering; and reliability and availability. And it added that there are two obstacles related to programming, including budgeting and contracting and stakeholder availability.
AAR’s Hamberger said that freight railroads are continuing the process of mapping more than 475,000 critical features of the rail system into a computerized track database and much remains to be completed.

“Doing what is right and safe must steer this process, not a subjective deadline. We are up against significant hurdles every day and they must be overcome before PTC is launched across every major railroad’s network,” Hamberger said. “This is a tremendous burden to achieve in such a short period of time with a limited but highly specialized staff. This is one of the most significant technological undertakings in transportation history,” Hamberger said. “Safely implementing interoperable PTC cannot be rushed – we must get it right to ensure rail continues to be the safest way to move both people and goods.”

At last December’s RailTrends Conference hosted by Progressive Railroading magazine and independent rail analyst Tony Hatch, Deborah Hersman, 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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