GAO report calls on Congress to extend Postive Train Control deadline

By Jeff Berman · September 19, 2013

With most United States-based railroads signaling they will miss the 2015 deadline for installing Positive Train Control (PTC), the Government Accountability Office said in a report it is asking that Congress should consider amending the Railroad Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) and grant the Federal Railroad Administration the authority to extend the deadline on certain rail lines on a case-by-case basis.

GAO also said Congress should grant provisional certification of PTC systems and approve the use of alternative safety technologies in lieu of PTC to improve safety.

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.

The GAO report echoes the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and FRA’s statements indicating they will miss the December 31, 2015 implementation deadline, coupled with most railroads saying they will as well.

Of the four major freight railroads cited in the report, GAO said just one—BNSF Railway—expects to meet the deadline, with the other three indicating they expect to meet it by 2017 or later. The report said BNSF is on schedule to meet the deadline because of its “extensive experience working on PTC prior to RSIA, its iterative build and test approach, and the concurrent development of its PTC dispatching and back office systems.”

A major reason for meeting the deadline is because as per the RSIA requirements, railroads are developing more than 20 major components that are in various stages of development, integrating them and installing them across the rail network, according to GAO. And it added that the AAR said by the end of 2012 railroads had invested $2.8 billion on PTC and will ultimately spend $8 billion on it.

“The railroads have done everything possible to make PTC happen as quickly as possible,” said
Bill Rennicke, director of Oliver Wyman, a Boston-based management consultancy. “The problem is it is a hugely complex technology. In the RSIA, Congress required interoperability for all locomotives, meaning that if UP is operating on a CSX line, as it does frequently, the traffic information needs to be built into a common technology that feeds that UP locomotive pulling trains across CSX territory with information on that train’s characteristics, and that technology does not exist.”

Another reason Congress should extend the deadline, he said, is that PTC is essentially an untested system, noting that PTC systems in Europe were tested for ten years before going live.

What’s more, Rennicke said the current deadline is so tight that it does not allow for a test period, meaning 100 percent operation is needed from the start with no system failures, which he described as unlikely.

“The railroad industry and ultimately shippers will have to pay for all of this in the form of hundreds of millions of billions or more if Congress does not come up with a more reasonable schedule,” he said.

The GAO report follows legislation introduced in August by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Mark Pryor (D-AR) 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, would be an extension for short line railroads that operate on PTC-mandated track.


About the Author

Jeff Berman
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. Contact Jeff Berman

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