Railroad shipping: Proposed Positive Train Control changes could be good news for carriers

The proposed changes would provide greater flexibility to railroads and the FRA in assessing the need for PTC without adversely affecting the safety of America’s rail lines.

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Proposed changes to regulations made by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regarding Positive Train Control (PTC) may spell good news for Class I railroads.

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 proposed changes, according to Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, would provide greater flexibility to railroads and the FRA in assessing the need for PTC without adversely affecting the safety of America’s rail lines.

FRA officials said these proposed changes would help affected railroads to realize an estimated cost savings of $340 million in the first several years, with total savings of up to $1 billion over a 20 year period by not installing PTC systems on as much as 14,000 miles of track. The FRA added that railroad lines impacted by this proposal have significantly less accident exposure, because they do not carry passenger trains of poison inhalation hazard materials.

“We believe that the proposal provides a balance of safety regulation and cost to the industry,” said FRA Administrator Joseph C. Szabo in a statement.  “We look forward to working together with the railroads as they concentrate on areas where positive train control is much-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 Wall Street Journal report. The report said that the law requires PTC technology on track carrying passengers or highly toxic chemicals, and freight railroads maintain that without changes they will be required to install PTC for thousands of miles of track that will not be carrying toxic chemicals by 2015.

Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote in his “Fast Lane” blog in June that PTC is an example of how its costs could be reduced and still maintain its effectiveness.

“FRA has examined this rule and decided that revisions could be proposed that would significantly reduce industry burdens without adversely affecting rail safety,” wrote LaHood. “We expect savings on PTC installation alone to total between $225 million and $400 million.  Over 20 years, installation and maintenance savings should total between $440 million and $1.04 billion.”

In a statement issued by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) in March,  AAR President and CEO Edward Hamberger said that the AAR has been working with the FRA on its review of various rules, including implementation of positive train control (PTC) technologies as mandated by the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act.

He added that in March 2010, the AAR on behalf of its member railroads filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit seeking to change certain aspects of the PTC regulations.  And on March 2, 2011 the parties asked the court to put the suit on hold while FRA agreed to undertake a review of its final rule.  The D.C. Circuit granted the motion.

“A major issue is the scope of the PTC mandate,” said Hamberger on an AAR media conference call earlier this year. “For example, while Congress clearly stipulated that PTC be installed on main lines used to transport passengers and TIH as of Dec. 31, 2015, FRA required PTC to be installed on lines used to transport passengers and TIH in 2008. This seven year difference in implementation dates substantially affects the cost – according to AAR estimates by more than $500 million.  AAR also estimates that at least 10,000 miles of track that saw TIH movements in 2008 would no longer be used for such movements by Dec. 31, 2015.”


About the Author

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. Contact Jeff Berman

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