Class 1 Railroads Might Miss PTC Deadline for Railroad Safety

Operators on Class 1 railroads are some of the biggest players on the playground. That’s why they are key to the Positive Train Control (PTC) legislation, one of the more exciting developments in the railroad industry. With PTC, trains regularly and automatically relay GPS information about their location, speed and direction to a central database known as a movement authority. Signals also give information about their status, all coming together to improve the safety of the operation.

Railroad safety requires time for Class 1 railroads

Using these data points, the movement authority gives the trains instructions about speed, direction, any stops and so forth, with an eye toward collision avoidance, efficiency and worker safety. These instructions are automatically obeyed by the train, reducing the chances of human error causing destructive or even deadly accidents.

The U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandates that most U.S. rail networks implement PTC by December 15, 2015. There have been several bills proposed that would extend this deadline, although as of July none have passed. Not many of the 41 companies affected are on track to make this vital deadline.

Logistics has to do a great deal with the hold up. The miles of freight tracks laid out across the nation are long enough to circle the earth 2 times over. So even when the deadline was set in 2008, the industry knew it would be a long stretch. Senator Thune commented “Without extension, many passenger and freight railroads will be unable to meet the current unrealistic deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, and would be forced to decide between stopping service and operating in violation of the law.” And that has proven to be true.

PTC Progress

Overall, media observers have noted that most companies are failing to meet the benchmarks for successful, timely implementation of PTC. This is widely hypothesized to be because they’re still expecting Congress to push back the deadline.

As of this writing, only three railways are ready to implement PTC guidelines: Amtrak, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia and Metrolink in Southern California. All of these are passenger rail systems.

Many railway companies are having trouble implementing PTC due to the costs involved. Congress has offered no funds to railroads to help meet the deadline, leaving railway companies scrambling. The freight industry actually started out strong in its implementation of the legilstation. AAR statistics show freight rail lines have spent more than $5.2 billion developing and installing the system. Recent estimates calculate that 50% of locomotives and 75,000 miles of track already have PTC. They just need more time.

Part of the problem is sheer logistics. Of the 80,000 miles to be updated, they all need nearly half a million features along the track. Coordination is providing another unanticipated roadblock. Getting locomotives from different makes and ages to talk to each other is proving to be a colossal task. GPS tracking devices intelligent enough to do that only came out within the last couple years. Simply put, the magnitude of the effort was gross underestimated by Congress in 2008.

Potential Derailment

PTC has the potential to radically increase the safety of both passenger and freight trains in the United States. Unfortunately, most railway companies aren’t on deadline to implement it and will be facing large fines if they don’t. Most of them have resigned themselves to not meeting the deadline, which could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines or non-operations.