Clock keeps ticking for Congress to extend Positive Train Control deadline

The December 31, 2015 Congressionally-mandated deadline for Positive Train Control (PTC) systems to be implemented on United States railways gets closer every day, but that does not mean the deadline will be met. In fact, it is quite the opposite, with both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and various railroads and industry observers saying it most definitely will not be met.

By ·

The December 31, 2015 Congressionally-mandated deadline for Positive Train Control (PTC) systems to be implemented on United States railways gets closer every day, but that does not mean the deadline will be met. In fact, it is quite the opposite, with both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and various railroads and industry observers saying it most definitely will not be met.

As previously reported, 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- The Rail Safety and Improvement Act of 2008. The legislation was passed after a September 12, 2008 collision between a freight train and a commuter train in Los Angeles. PTC has received renewed attention, following a tragic Amrtak accident in the Philadelphia area earlier this year. As per the mandate, the December 31, 2015 deadline requires freight railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) technology on 40 percent of its network.

While that deadline is good and well, the current situation is clearly quite far from it. Taking that a step further, legislation recently introduced by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, entitled the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015, calls to extend the 2015 PTC implementation deadline to the end of 2018, while also providing limited authority for the United States Department of Transportation Secretary to extend the 2018 deadline beyond 2018 if railroads show they are having continued difficulties in meeting the deadline while making a full effort to install PTC, coupled with requiring railroads to complete progress reports on implementation efforts.

This is what is largely, if not uniformly, viewed as the correct––and only¬¬––approach to take when it comes to PTC.

Taking that a step further, in the weeks leading up to the introduction of this legislation, various railroad stakeholders made it clear that rail service shutdowns could be looming if an extension is not granted. 

And the AAR said in September that the lack of an extension would have far-reaching impacts on the nation’s freight and passenger rail industries, their customers and the American economy and they have indicated without the certainty of a PTC extension in the very near future, preparatory actions are beginning to suspend service by December 31.

On a conference call earlier this week hosted by the AAR, which featured myriad industry freight and passenger rail stakeholders, AAR President and CEO Ed Hamberger said that the freight rail sector is committed to getting the job completed, noting that freight railroads have invested $6 billion on PTC to date and estimate it will take $10 billion to fully complete the installation.

He likened the current situation to a home that is only half built that needs to be finished and added that by the end of the year, the freight rail sector will have: 12,000 PTC-equipped track miles but PTC needs to be installed on 70,000 track miles; 22,000 locomotives need to be outfitted, and 32,000 towers need to be built. And he also cited the complexity in interoperability, with 70-to-100 railroads that need to be able to communicate, which presents a challenge.

The AAR’s top executive also said that when Congress enacted the Railroad Safety Improvement Act in 2008, it did not appreciate the scope of complexity [of PTC] on the technological side as it is technology that had to be developed.

“We believe we will need three years and are committed to making 100 percent of the installation complete by end of 2018 and then we are going to need up to two years for validation and testing,” he said. “I emphasize that because it is a safety technology our employees will be depending on and you don’t want to have a safety system that is not fully validated.  Right now, AAR members are saying they are experiencing a 30-40 percent error rate with PTC. We have to got make sure this is working.”

The final point stressed by Hamberger is that the extension needs to be done now, and that things cannot be “business as usual” in Washington, which is what occurred with the Fiscal Year appropriations bill being passed at the 11th hour, which he said will not work in this case.

And he explained that freight railroads have written to Congress to explain they will begin to notify customers about the various embargoes that they each individually are making decisions to implement.

To that extent, Union Pacific said it expects to issue a TIH embargo notice prior to Thanksgiving if an extension is not reached and BSF said that “the deadline will impact all freight service…on the lines where PTC is not fully installed and implemented.”

Norfolk Southern said yesterday it will no longer accept shipments of Poisonous-Inhalation Hazard commodities, effective December 1, with PIH commodities in transit on December to be delivered to destination by December 31. NS said that this service cessation will take effect for its entire rail network to comply with the PTC deadline, even though it has invested almost $1 billion on PTC to date and will not meet the deadline. 

Despite the calls to extend the deadline, a Bloomberg report said that the White House plans to enforce the current PTC deadline, adding that railroads are asking for a three-year delay to install the systems and another two years before they must be fully operational. A previous Senate bill would require PTC to be installed by 2018, while not necessarily being fully operational, the report said.

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

Subscribe to Logistics Management Magazine!

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Get timely insider information that you can use to better manage your entire logistics operation.
Start your FREE subscription today!

Article Topics

AAR · Positive Train Control · All Topics
Latest Whitepaper
Intelligent Vision-based Sortation & Tracking Systems
Download this new "Making the Case" guide to learn how using intelligent, vision-based readers and sensors can capture the information you need to help address both external customer service expectations, and internal marching orders for efficiency.
Download Today!
From the January 2019 Logistics Management Magazine Issue
Seaports on West, East, and Gulf coasts are all poised to compete on one major imperative: investment in transformational technologies.
2019 Rate Outlook: Pressure Builds
Lift Trucks join the connected enterprise
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly email newsletter!
Latest Webcast
2019 Rate Outlook: Will this be the year rates skyrocket?
Join Logistics Management's Patrick Burnson as he hosts a panel of fuel, trade and logistics experts who share their insights on rate patterns across all major transport modes to help shippers prepare their freight transportation budget for the coming year.
Register Today!
2019 Rate Outlook: Pressure Builds
In 2019, the world economy will enter a third straight year of broad-based growth, but many...
2019 Transportation Management Systems (TMS) Market Update: Keeping pace with the times
The transportation management systems market is growing right along with the number of challenges...

The Logistics News that Shaped 2018
Every year at this time, group news editor Jeff Berman combs through the mountain of news that was...
Land O’Lakes lock in Texas-based capacity
Faced with the challenge of securing capacity in specific lanes, the iconic company broke with...