AAR Confident of Meeting PTC Deadline

Positive train control has been much in the news lately following two fatal Amtrak derailments in the past 60 days that some believe could have been prevented had PTC been in place.

The nation’s railroads face a Dec. 31, 2018, deadline under federal law to finish installing PTC and the Association of American Railroads contends that its members will meet that deadline.

During a news conference on Monday, AAR’s Mike Rush, senior vice president for safety and operations, said that  the nation’s railroads and Amtrak are far along in their efforts to install PTC equipment.

But he cautioned that PTC is not necessarily a magic bullet in preventing all railroad accidents.

“PTC-preventable accidents are about 4 percent of mainline accidents,” he said, citing a 2005 study conducted by an industry-labor-government committee. “It’s a very small percentage, but PTC-preventable accidents can be very dramatic with severe consequences.”

In reference to the head-on collision between an Amtrak train and a CSX auto rack train in South Carolina on Sunday that left two dead and 116 injured, Rush said that “movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position,” was one of four criteria that Congress required for a PTC system.

The federal mandate to the railroad industry to install PTC on routes used by passenger trains and/or the carriage of hazardous cargo was contained in a law adopted by Congress in 2008.

The deadline for installation of PTC has been extended once already and Rush noted that the law allows railroads to seek to extend the deadline to 2020 for testing and full implementation.

Such extensions could be granted by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Rush explained that the 2018 deadline involves four “milestones” that railroads are expected to meet.

All PTC hardware must be installed, all radio spectrum must be acquired, PTC must be implemented on more than 50 percent of a railroad’s territory where the system is required, and all employees must have completed training in the use of PTC.

Within those four categories are additional requirements that railroads must meet.

Rush said it won’t be known until this summer which railroads might seek an extension of time to implement PTC.

Rush said that according to data collected by the AAR, as of Dec. 31, 2017:
• 78 percent of locomotives are equipped to process PTC information
• 87 percent of employees have been trained
• 97 percent of the required radio towers have been installed
• 72 percent of track segments have PTC installed
• 56 percent of route miles have PTC implemented.

In explaining how PTC works, he described it as an “overlay” of existing railroad signal and dispatching systems.

Future PTC systems might be stand-alone system that eliminate the need for wayside signals or even dispatching.

Although it might appear that the pressure on the railroad industry to install PTC systems began 10 years ago, AAR officials said the industry has been working to develop PTC since the 1990s.

Tom Schnautz, chairman of AAR’s PTC interoperability committee, and assistant vice president-mechanical at Norfolk Southern, said some early testing of PTC failed to achieve its objectives.

One of those failed demonstration projects involved a test on the Chicago-St. Louis route used by Amtrak.

“There was real system development. There was real systems deployment. And it failed,” Schnautz said. “When the technology exists, it’s a different conversation.”

What the 2008 congressional mandate did, Rush said, was to force the railroad industry to discard its investments in PTC development and work toward building a system that Congress had mandated.

“Some would argue that the PTC mandate actually set PTC back,” he said. “There were a number of industry projects investigating PTC under way before 2008. The industry recognized the potential safety benefits and the economic benefits. A lot of the work that had gone into these projects had to be shoved aside. The railroads had to join forces and start from scratch to come up with an interoperable system.”

However, Rush said there is no going back. “You’re sinking billions of dollars into PTC, you want to get the potential business benefits and you want to make sure you’re doing this in the most efficient way possible.”

Class 1 railroads have spent an estimated $10 billion on PTC and will spend more on maintenance of it in the future.

AAR general counsel Kathryn Kirmayer fears that FRA regulations will result in micromanagement of PTC.

“The regulations would make it difficult to change your PTC system with new innovation. [The regulation] is very prescriptive and has a lot of very specific requirements for changing things. It’s a long process,” she said.

Nonetheless, Rush said that is a concern for a future discussion, adding that for now all of the attention is being focused on meeting the 2018 deadline.

Rush also contended that there is no issue of whether the industry would or would not have implemented PTC without the government mandate.

“I think it’s a mischaracterization to say that PTC would never have happened if it hadn’t been for the 2008 mandate. Clearly there was a commitment [by the]  . . . industry to look at PTC. Clearly there’s a trade-off,” Rush said. “You can say we wouldn’t have been where we are today if it weren’t for the statutory mandate. The flip side is we might have come up with a better PTC system that was cost-effective if we let those projects continue.”

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