Posts Tagged ‘Positive train control’

The Politics of PTC

February 21, 2018

Much has been said during the past two months about positive train control, but one of the more interesting comments came from Bennett Levin, the owner of a pair of E8A locomotives painted in the livery of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Levin told Trains magazine that he couldn’t afford the six-figure cost per unit to outfit his locomotives with a PTC device. Instead, he’ll probably sideline them.

Referring to a 2008 federal law that mandates PTC on many railroad routes, Levin described the requirement as “unfortunate and untimely” and suggested the requirement might not exist had a Metrolink commuter train engineer been doing his job instead of texting on his cell phone in the minutes before his train ran past a red signal and crashed head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Los Angeles, an incident that left 25 dead.

Levin’s comments probably reflect the thinking of others in the railroad industry but it would not be good public relations, let alone good politics, for them to make similar comments.

The Association of American Railroads recently held a press briefing in which it fired an opening salvo on behalf of railroads likely to ask the Federal Railroad Administration for an extension of time to meet the PTC mandate.

The AAR expressed confidence that U.S. railroads will comply with the PTC deadline of
Dec. 31, but an AAR official later said it won’t be known until summer which railroads might seek an extension of time to install PTC.

Those requests for more time might not sit well with some at the FRA, the U.S. Department of Transportation or Congress.

The railroad trade group also was laying the groundwork for future fights concerning PTC by expressing concern that the FRA will micromanage PTC systems once they are in place and operating.

That concern is not without merit given the statements that have been coming virtually nonstop from the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress in the wake of three high profile accidents since December involving Amtrak trains that resulted in fatalities.

In two of those, the NTSB has said that had PTC been operating at the time, the accident likely would have been avoided.

Given what we know about the facts of those three Amtrak collisions, human error was at the root of all of them. The implication is that in at least two of those accidents technology could have overcome human foibles.

Perhaps, but the AAR also made the point during that news conference that PTC is not the magic bullet for rail safety that many are making it out to be. AAR Senior Vice President for Safety and Operations Mike Rush cited a 2005 study that found only 4 percent of mainline accidents could have been prevented by PTC.

Of course safety is paramount advocates will counter that one life lost is one too many.

It is hard to argue against that, yet far more people lose their lives in highway accidents than are killed in railroad accidents and we don’t see a movement to install some form of PTC on highways, the move toward self-driving vehicles notwithstanding.

Most highway fatalities don’t make the national news, only the local news and even then they might not get that much attention, let alone the type of lasting attention needed to prompt policy makers into action.

Society has become numbed by the high number of road fatalities, but expects the government to do something about accidents involving public transportation.

Make no mistake about it. Implementation of PTC is as much a political issue as it is a safety issue.

People who own railroad companies and, for that matter, airline companies, trucking companies, water transportation companies, bus companies, et. al, don’t like being told how to run their business. They don’t like being pushed around by government regulators and policy makers.

During the AAR news conference, Rush tried to make the case that PTC would likely have come about anyway without the government mandate.

He said the industry has spent decades researching PTC and conducted trials, one of which ended in failure.

But all of that got short circuited by the 2008 government mandate. Since then, the railroad industry has invested $10 billion in PTC and figures to spend millions if not billions more in maintaining it.

We’ll never know what the railroad industry would have come up with had it been left to its own devices in developing PTC. Nor will we ever know how many railroads would have installed PTC voluntarily on how much of their networks.

What we do know is that so long as public transportation conveyances continue to have accidents that leave people dead, there will continue to be government regulators and private citizen lobby groups trying to push the transportation industry around by telling them what to do to make travel safer.

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House Committee Lays Down Law on PTC Laggards

February 16, 2018

The railroad industry was put on notice Thursday that it will meet the Dec. 31 deadline to install positive train control or suffer the consequences.

The message was given by members of the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing to review progress on implementing PTC systems.

“The American public is tired of excuses. It’s life-saving technology, but it’s also very complex. We want to get it done quickly, by this deadline, but we also want to get it done right,” said Jeff Denham of California and chairman of the T&I subcommittee that oversees railroads.

Presiding over the hearing, Denham said there have been too many deaths that PTC could have prevented.

“It’s not going to solve all of our challenges but as all in the industry agree, it moves our industry to the next level,” Denham said.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, said the committee was trying to be reasonable, noting that Congress agreed nearly three years ago to extend the original December 2015 deadline to December 2018.

“But 2018 is real and there is not a single person [on the committee] who’s going to quietly accept the next accident after that deadline,” he said.

The two-hour hearing reviewed technological and policy issues that the railroad industry faces in implementing PTC.

Under prodding from committee members, Federal Railroad Administration Acting Deputy Administrator Juan D. Reyes III said his agency has met with 41 railroads since the first of the year and would soon be making comments on the implementation plans the railroads have submitted.

Denham said that although some carriers have put PTC in place quickly some have yet to begin. “We are well aware there are some that will never get there by the end of the year,” Denham said.

However, some of those who have been slow to respond have not started, have failed thus far to ask for an extension and haven’t sought some of the $31 billion in low-cost Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loans available for PTC implementation.

In particular, committee members from New Jersey and New York were critical of the lack of progress by New Jersey Transit.

Reyes said the FRA has begun fining railroads that had not kept pace with their implementation plans, calling that “a shot across the bow to tell them we’re serious and  . . . we’re going to push them to get this implemented.”

Denham said he supported in principle a bill sponsored by Capuano and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, that would prohibit the FRA from extending PTC deadlines beyond Dec. 31.

“This has gone on for 10 years now. It ought to be very obvious what needs to be done,” Denham said. “Safety is first in all of our transportation, but as of late there have been too many accidents, and we can do better.”

Amtrak Won’t Use Lines Without PTC

February 16, 2018

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told a congressional committee on Thursday that the passenger carrier will not operate over tracks that are not compliant with positive train control laws.

Anderson made the comments in testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure committee, which was holding a hearing on PTC and its implementation.

He said that Amtrak will need to consider whether it should operate over freight railroads that have waivers from the FRA on their PTC installations.

In instances in which Amtrak uses rails where a railroad is required to install PTC yet has not made insufficient progress to apply for a waiver, “Amtrak will suspend operations until such time as the carrier becomes compliant with the law,” Anderson said.

Federal law requires railroads hosting passenger trains to have PTC in place by the end of this year.

The mandate is part of the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The original PTC installation deadline was Dec. 31, 2015, but Congress extended it to Dec. 31, 2018, or in certain circumstances to 2020.

PTC is also required on routes that lack passenger service but which carry 5 million gross tons annually.

Cost of Installing PTC May Sideline PRR E8A Locomotives from Mainline Excursion Service

February 16, 2018

Two former Pennsylvania Railroad E8A passenger locomotives are likely to be sidelined once positive train control systems are switched on.

Bennett Levin, who owns Tuscan red Nos. 5711 and 5809 told Trains magazine that the cost of PTC to prohibitive for two diesels that are used only about twice a year.

“Based on what we know at this time, there’s no practical way to continue,” he said.

Levin estimated the cost of installing PTC at six figures per unit. “Nobody is going to spend that kind of money,” Levin said in reference to mainline passenger excursions.

He also said another potential stumbling block is uncertainty about the future of private car operations on Amtrak.

The last road trip for the Pennsy units may be this May when they pull an excursion being sponsored by the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society.

That trip will run from Philadelphia to Altoona, Pennsylvania, on May 9 for the group’s 50th annual convention. The train of parlor cars will return on May 13.

Congress in 2008 mandated that railroad lines hosting passengers service and/or hazardous cargo must have a PTC system. The deadline for installing the systems is Dec. 31.

Levin described that mandate as “unfortunate and untimely.”

Calling it an unfunded Congressional mandate, Levin said it would not exist had the locomotive engineer of a California commuter train that collided with a Union Pacific locomotive been doing his job and not using his cell phone just before the collision. That crash helped to prompt the 2008 legislation mandating PTC installation.

The PRR E8A units have passed through Northeast Ohio a handful of times in the past decade and pulled a private car train on the Ohio Central on July 31, 2004, from Dennison to Sugar Creek and return.

Ex-NTSB Head Says Accidents Will Continue to Occur Until PTC is Installed and Implemented

February 13, 2018

A former head of the National Transportation Safety Board believes that accidents such as the one that killed two Amtrak crew members in South Carolina on Feb. 4 will continue until positive train control is fully installed and implemented.

Deborah Hersman said in an interview with Trains magazine that two recent derailments involving Amtrak that resulted in fatalities could have been prevented had PTC been in place at the time of the accidents.

Hersman said those accidents are especially frustrating because PTC is designed to prevent head-on collisions and speed-related incidents.

Excessive speed figured in a December derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train in Washington State while a misaligned switch has been implicated in the head-on crash of the southbound Silver Star with a parked CSX auto rack train.

“History just keeps repeating itself and we’re not learning from past mistakes fast enough to save lives,” she said.

Hersman was appointed to the NTSB in 2004. She was named chair of the board in 2009. Since 2014, she had served as president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

In the interview with Trains, Hersman noted that the NTSB has been calling for the implementation of PTC since 1990.

She said the number of accidents that might have been avoided had PTC been in place has continue to grow.

Following a head-on collision between a Los Angeles commuter train and a Union Pacific train in 2008, Congress adopted legislation requiring Class I railroad mainlines that haul hazardous materials or routes with regularly scheduled passenger service to have PTC.

The deadline was to have been at the end of 2016, but was extended by Congress to the end of 2018.

By law railroads required to have PTC must show that they have installed it by the end of this year. Failing that, they must show they have made substantial progress to seek an extension to 2020, something Hersman said would be disingenuous.

“We keep kicking the can down the road,” she said. “The pressure is on in the next 10 months because having PTC close to being installed is not close enough.”

AAR Confident of Meeting PTC Deadline

February 7, 2018

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.”

Chao Prods Railroads to Finish PTC Work

January 4, 2018

The U.S. Department of Transportation is leaning on railroads to finish installation and implementation of positive train control by the end of the year.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao wrote to the chiefs of Class Is, intercity passenger railroads and state and local transit agencies to prod them into meeting the Dec. 31, 2018, deadline set by federal law.

Chao expressed concern that many railroads are behind schedule in implementing PTC.

She said the Federal Railroad Administration will work with railroads “to help create an increased level of urgency to underscore the imperative of meeting existing timeline expectations for rolling out this critical rail safety technology.”

In 2008 Congress adopted legislation requiring PTC with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015. That deadline later was moved to the end of 2018 although in certain circumstances the deadline could be the end of 2020.

Crystal Ball Look at 2018 and Railroads

January 3, 2018

With a new year upon us, it’s time to look ahead to what 2018 might bring in the railroad industry. Such predictions are fraught with peril given that unexpected developments can occur at any time that dramatically changes the trajectory of the industry or its individual components.

A year ago at this time we thought E. Hunter Harrison was living out his days as CEO of Canadian Pacific. Few knew that he was plotting with a hedge fund to take over CSX.

Even fewer knew that Harrison was in his final days of overseeing any railroad and would die before the year ended.

With that in mind I press ahead in reviewing four stories to watch in 2018.

What now for CSX? The patriarch of precision scheduled railroading left before his model could be fully implemented.

Look for CSX to continue the PSR model under new CEO James M. Foote, although with some modifications.

Much of the early months of 2018 will see Foote finding his way at CSX while assuring investors that he was a wise choice to replace Harrison.

Industry analysts have pointed out that Foote is thin in operating experience. Much of his industry time has been spent in marketing and sales.

That could turn out to be a good thing for CSX because customer relations was not Harrison’s strong suit. He was an old school operating man who wanted to dictate terms to shippers not the other way around.

Look for CSX to appoint an operations vice president so that Foote can focus on what he knows best.

Both Canadian National and CP have done quite well post-Harrison. Will the same be true for CSX? Perhaps, but if that is the case it will be due to Harrison having laid the foundation not from having built the house as was the case at CN and CP.

What now for Amtrak? Richard Anderson is firmly in control of the nation’s rail passenger carrier with Charles “Wick” Moorman having retired.

Anderson, the former CEO at Delta Air Lines, has hired a supporting team that includes former airline executives. It remains to be seen what that means.

These airline executives cut their teeth during the airline deregulation era when airlines learned ways to squeeze every last dollar out of passengers through such things as baggage fees and seat assignment fees, among others.

Remember the last time that an airline served you a not meal in coach as part of your fare? Yeah, it’s been a while.

Anderson won’t necessarily remake Amtrak in that model but look for him to move in that direction.

The name of the game will be maximizing revenue yield – something Amtrak has already been doing – as the carrier seeks to recover even more of its expenses from the fare box.

Anderson will have his hands full this year attending to matters that grabbed a disproportionate number of headlines in 2017. This includes the rebuilding of New York’s Penn Station and dealing with the aftermath of the derailment of a Cascades Service train in Washington State.

Much of the latter has focused on the fact that positive train control was not yet in operation on the route. Questions are being raised about the adequacy of training of Amtrak operating employees and the railroad’s safety culture.

These matters will continue to attract attention in 2018 and take up much of Anderson’s time.

Rail passenger advocates in places such as Ohio will continue to be disappointed in Amtrak in 2018. But that is nothing new.

Little, if any, progress will be made in terms of route expansion, new equipment for long-distance trains or expanding the frequency of such tri-weekly services as the Chicago-Washington Cardinal.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that the aging Superliners will get a new interior look starting later in the year.

Will Railroads Make the PTC Deadline? The last day of 2018 is the deadline for the railroad industry to implement positive train control systems on routes that handle passengers and/or carry hazardous cargo. The deadline has been moved once already.

The Federal Railroad Administration has warned that waivers won’t be issued again, but that was during a different administration.

The Trump administration might be far more sympathetic to railroad industry pleas for a little more time due to the expense and complexity of PTC systems.

Some railroads will make the deadline, but others are going to be cutting it close.

Will the Trump Infrastructure Plan See the Light of Day? Candidate Donald Trump liked to talk about his big plans to revamp the nation’s infrastructure. President Donald Trump has barely mentioned it other than to pay it lip service on occasion.

The administration has been tight lipped about the scope of the plan other than a few broad details, such as $200 billion in federal funds will be used to leverage $1 trillion worth of infrastructure improvements.

Supposedly, the infrastructure plan was being held in abeyance until Congress passed a tax bill, which it did in late December.

In theory, an infrastructure improvement plan should have bi-partisan support. But in a hyper partisan environment during a midterm election year bi-partisan support might be hard to come by. Political hardball will be the rule.

There remains the question of how much the railroad industry would benefit from an infrastructure plan once or even if it is implemented. Few rail infrastructure plans come with a private developer other than than the railroad itself to provide matching funds.

Passenger rail should be a prime beneficiary of an infrastructure plan, but given the current political climate it might find little to feed on except for a few token crumbs that will be eaten by Northeast Corridor infrastructure needs, of which there are many.

Freight railroads might fare a little better in getting funds for some projects, e.g., enlarging tunnels or replacing bridges that they agree to help fund.

But don’t be surprised if the infrastructure plan winds up benefiting highways and even some areas that only a strained definition of infrastructure would incorporate, e.g., a veteran’s hospital. It will hinge on how the terms of the plan are written.

A lot of hungry government agencies and private companies are going to be looking for a slice of the infrastructure pie and might provide tortuous explanations as to how their project constitutes infrastructure.

I’m reminded of that famous response from bank robber Willie Sutton in the Saturday Evening Post as to why he robbed banks: “I rob banks because that’s where the money is.”

The infrastructure plan might make available money not available otherwise so there are going to be a lot of hand out seeking a part of it.

Conservatives in Congress will not necessarily offer automatic support for an infrastructure plan, which they might fame as a stimulus plan. That would remind them too much of something they despised during the early years of the Obama administration.

And conservatives absolutely, positively dislike spending federal money on passenger rail. They are not all that more supportive of public transportation even when it uses rubber tires on asphalt and concrete surfaces.

PTC Progress Has Been Uneven

December 28, 2017

Less than a quarter of passenger rail lines have positive train control systems in operation on the track that they own, the Federal Railroad Administration has reported.

The FRA said freight railroads have implanted PTC on 45 percent of their route miles that are required to have it.

The figures show progress through Sept. 30. The FRA has given conditional certification to eight of 37 railroads required to implement PTC by a Dec. 31, 2018, deadline. There are 41 railroads that must meet that deadline.

The FRA report showed that 68 percent of freight and 50 percent of passenger locomotive fleets have PTC controls. It also showed that 82 percent of freight and 66 percent of passenger railroad employees have received PTC training.

Among freight railroads, BNSF has made the most progress while among transit systems the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is nearly ready.

A handful of railroads have reported making little to no progress in installing and implementing PTC.

Amtrak to Add PTC to Locomotives

September 2, 2017

Amtrak will provide 310 locomotives with a positive train control system that will be installed by Rockwell Collins.

In a news release, Amtrak said the system will be operational by the Dec. 31, 2018, federal deadline set in the amended Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

The passenger carriers plans to use the ARINC RailwayNet℠ service, a hosted network, messaging and application platform designed to meet PTC requirements, which will allow Amtrak locomotives to operate with the PTC systems of its 19 host railroads.

Amtrak said it is well along on PTC implementation, having activated its advanced civil speed enforcement system in the Northeast Corridor and Keystone Corridor.

An incremental train control system, another version of PTC, is in use on 97 miles of track Amtrak owns in Michigan and Indiana on the Chicago-Detroit corridor.