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Senators push for Positive Train Control extension

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
August 07, 2013

A little more than a month ago, Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Ed 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.

It appears that the committee was listening, with Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD) and Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Mark Pryor (D-AR) recently 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, would be an extension for short line railroads that operate on PTC-mandated track.

“This bill ensures that safety for rail passengers and secure freight transportation remains a priority while the FRA moves forward in implementing PTC,” said Thune in a statement. “I understand that this bill is a starting point and I will continue to work with my colleagues, the FRA, railroads, and industry stakeholders to ensure that PTC is implemented in a safe and timely manner.”

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 a report submitted to Congress by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in August 2012, 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 as technical obstacles—to date—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.

“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’s Hamberger told the senate panel last month. “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.

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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