A new federal agency report has sounded the loudest signal yet that positive train control (PTC) will not meet a 2015 Congressional mandate for implementation.
With progress slow and uncertain for freight and passenger rail operators in the five years since the law was enacted, government regulators and industry advocates are becoming increasingly vocal on the drastic measures, options for change and possible missteps in getting functional PTC in place in any form across the United States.
“Quite frankly, I almost think it needs a reboot, to reconsider the architecture of the PTC system,” says Steve Ditmeyer, an adjunct professor of railway management at Michigan State University and an expert on PTC. “But even that doesn’t really satisfy Congress and it doesn’t get anything done by 2015, it only delays PTC some more. They are off to a really rocky start.”
Next Stop: Recommendations
The Rail Safety and Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008 mandated implementation of interoperable positive train control systems by each Class I railroad carrier and each intercity and commuter rail in “risk priority order” by Dec. 31, 2015. Varying PTC systems had been tested and put in place sporadically through the 1990s by a handful of private carriers and along portions of Amtrak lines.
Following a rash of freight collisions and the high-profile Chatsworth collision in Los Angeles — where a distracted texting conductor ran a stop signal, hitting a commuter train car and killing 25 — outcry fomented in legislative push for formal action.
Among the guidelines first pitched in 2007 — though discussed in some form and tinkered with for years — was positive train control, an umbrella term for the train line traffic and speed monitoring systems meant to cut collisions. Criticism of the finer points of the rail safety law are nothing new, particularly with regard to the PTC plans, many of which were approved without the technology to back it up in ready production and all of it reliant on ideal buy-in by rail operators.
But an anticipated status update on the progress of PTC published in late August by its oversight agency, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), gets to the heart of nine “significant” technological and programmatic challenges facing safety control plans. Combining rail industry input and various government and organizational reviews in the last two years, outstanding obstacles in the FRA report include:
- availability of 220 MHz radio spectrum chosen by rail providers for warning communications, as well as the devices that are required for all trains
- radio devices still in development from a provider chosen by a consortium of freight rail operators, with mass distribution and widespread testing not expected until 2013 at the earliest
- back-office servers and software that won’t be completed until the first quarter of 2013, nor is it known to be compatible among the handful of PTC types
- ongoing track database review, the first of its kind since 1917
- need for installation, testing and modifications on more than 70,000 locomotive and rail line signals, delayed because of other software and technology issues
- absence of system architecture reliability and maintenance, backlogging system down-time tests until 2014 or 2015
- related budgeting and schedules, particularly with passenger rail carriers dependant on government funding cycles and bidding guidelines
- limited capacity of the five experienced providers of at least some of the PTC software and/or hardware
A Plan to move forward
These issues aren’t insurmountable, but they certainly do adjust the aims for near-term goals with the program, says Joseph Szabo, FRA administrator. Along with the prominent obstacles, Szabo and his organization outlined a few recommendations to Congress as they fulfill their obligation to review and approve PTC plans. Primary among them is the acceptance of partial deployment, and switching the targets of those first functional systems from congested and complex areas like Chicago and Los Angeles, to easier-to-handle rail traffic.