Positive Train Control

I'm attending the Railway System Suppliers Inc. annual meeting this week in Omaha. The association serves the rail industry's communication and signal segment. Naturally, positive train control (PTC) is prominent among many of the exhibitors. And for good reason: the law mandates its implementation in the coming years, but does not resolve some important issues.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandates a deadline of 2015 for implementation of PTC for all U.S. rail operations. PTC is achieved through a multitude of methods, with no one method clearly rising above the rest, and that?s a problem. It is a significant problem as the United States moves forward with high-speed rail, corridor upgrades, commuter rail and interoperability with freight. Each method of implementation carries a different level of cost.

PTC in its most economical form is wireless or GPS-based, often called VTMS for vital train management system. According to industry representatives I spoke with, these systems are best used along freight routes with long distances, low density, dark territory and few tunnels or other interruptions for satellite signals. More costly, but also more reliable and precise are fixed infrastructure systems. In some cases, such as Amtrak, a combination of wireless and fixed signals is deployed. This is known as advanced civil speed enforcement system, or ACSES. Systems can be combined, at increased cost, but function best when many factors are considered.

PTC is a combination of technology, the human factor and training. All of these systems must take into account current speed, known track profiles, switch conditions, braking distances necessary at all points as the train travels, newly updated conditional restrictions and all factors related to safe train operation. The human and training aspects of PTC should not be underestimated or under budgeted either. While there are many solutions to monitor and control all these elements, no system has been determined to be the standard to implement as we draw closer to 2015.

The good news is that options are available. With more than a dozen suppliers in the PTC arena, there's no shortage of technology. Most of these companies have served the rail industry for a very long time, know it well and are staffed with rail veterans. As I spoke with many reps over the past days, each offered compelling solutions, clearly with a stake in their proprietary approach.

The FRA is clearly challenged right now to provide guidance in PTC standards and rule-making. One size does not fit all. And an installed base of signaling can not simply be discarded to make way for more universal PTC with a cost of billions. Keep PTC in your view if you have rail operations. It?s an issue that must be resolved soon if we are to forge ahead in this new rail era.