FRA report to Congress outlines myriad challenges in implementing Positive Train Control

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
August 21, 2012 - LM Editorial

When a mandate for Positive Train Control (PTC) systems was included four years ago in House and Senate legislation-H.R. 2095/S. 1889, The Rail Safety and Improvement Act of 2008, the implementation date for the installation of interoperable PTC systems by passenger and freight railroad carriers of December 31, 2014 seemed like a long ways off.

But roughly four years later it appears that the 2015 deadline date may not be met. That was the theme of a report submitted to Congress by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) earlier this month.

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.

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 the FRA in its report 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 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.

What’s more, the FRA noted that railroads have raised and expended more than $1.5 billion in private capital to “try and resolve” these issues, while the Federal Government has distributed $50 million through the Railroad Safety Technology Grant Program. 

In August 2011, the FRA proposed changes regarding PTC that would benefit participating railroads.

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.

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.

According to FRA estimates, installing PTC technology will cost more than $5 billion for the freight rail industry to install on more than 73,000 miles of tracks by the 2015 deadline, with total costs coming to more than $13 million when passenger trains are included. What’s more, the FRA has publicly stated that the cost-to-benefit ratio of installing PTC is 20-to-1. And the FRA has stated that safety benefits of PTC coming in at between $440 million and $674 million over a 20-year period.

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.

In a statement issued by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) in March 2011, 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 last 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

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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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About the Author

Jeff Berman, 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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