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AAR’s Hamberger tells Senate panel 2015 PTC deadline may not be feasible

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
July 02, 2013

While the deadline for railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) technology is December 2015, the top executive of the Association of American Railroads (AAR) told a Senate Commerce Committee panel last week that target may be somewhat overly ambitious.

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.

“A lot of progress toward implementing PTC has been made to date and railroads are working extremely hard to meet the 2015 deadline, collaborating with federal regulators and suppliers all throughout the process,” AAR President and CEO Ed Hamberger told the panel. “There will be a lot of PTC implemented throughout the nation’s rail network by 2015, but there will not be a fully interoperable system in place by then. While the deadline is important and something we never lose sight of, it is paramount that we end up with a PTC system that allows for the safe passage of both passengers and freight.”

Hamberger also explained to the panel that roughly $2.8 billion has been spent since 2008 on implementing PTC technology in an effort to meet the December 2015 deadline as mandated by the Rail Safety Improvement Act.  But because of technological and non-technological challenges that have arisen throughout the implementation process, freight railroads have determined it will not be possible to have a fully interoperable nationwide PTC system up and running by the 2015 deadline, adding that the current 2015 deadline should be extended by at least three years, to Dec. 31, 2018, with flexibility given to the Secretary of the Department of Transportation to consider additional extensions should they be deemed necessary.

Further adding to the PTC-related challenges, said Hamberger, is the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) regulatory process for constructing and placing PTC antenna structures, with railroads needing to install more than 20,000 new antenna structures nationwide to transmit PTC signals and almost 97 percent of these will be relatively small poles installed on railroad rights-of-way.

The AAR said that according to the FCC, all PTC antenna structures are subject to the National Environmental Protection Act and National Historic Preservation Act, and under FCC rules, every PTC antenna could be subject to a separate environmental evaluation process. This is problematic because if each of the 20,000-plus antennas needs to be reviewed separately, it is safe to assume PTC deployment will be further delayed, said Hamberger.

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.

And in an August 2011 report the Federal Railroad Administration 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.

A report on PTC prepared for the AAR by management consultancy Oliver Wyman stated that without external funding the PTC requirement will remove capital away from capacity expansion and other programs required by railroads at a time when the economic recovery is going to require additional railroad infrastructure. And the report added that the $5 billion cumulative PTC investment required by Class I railroads equals what Class I’s have doled out over the last four years, coupled with them having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year to maintain the PTC system.

Oliver Wyman Managing Director Bill Rennicke told LM that the PTC legislation is essentially a safety mandate, which ultimately will be paid for by shippers in the form of increased rates.

“If there are 10,000 unneeded miles and the government is now going back to provide a more accurate adjustment of the area in which the technology will be applied, it benefits everybody, not just carriers, but shippers, too, because it is a very expensive system being put in for safety reasons, not for economic or efficiency reasons,” he explained.

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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