“While starting with the most critically important areas sounds good from a safety standpoint, it can actually end up leading to greater challenges,” said Szabo. “So it’s our thought now that we deploy … with lower hanging fruit, where it’s easier to work kinks out and establish a track record of success. Then, we can deploy into more and more complex areas.”
The FRA also asked for provisional certification of PTC systems, with added time and required approvals by the Department of Transportation subsidiary. Finally, the FRA recommended that Congress should allow it to approve “alternative safety technologies” — existing measures and stopgap programs — in lieu of some elements of PTC.
However, the FRA stopped short of any direct bump of the deadline, sweeping changes to the letter of the law, or pleas for fiscal backing.
“If Congress chooses to extend the deadline, that would be done with very real constraints … and based on verifiable good faith effort to date to be timely in implementation,” he said.
‘Does Taking a Few More Years to get it Right Matter?’
While somewhat damning, the FRA isn’t even the first federal agency to report a strong possibility of missing the deadline, with the Government Accountability Office and the National Transportation and Safety Board each issuing their own sober views of the mandate’s progress in the last few years. Outside critics have their own take on the depth of challenges with the PTC initiative.
No one at the federal level or at outside agencies indicated the delay and disarray with results of the PTC law would directly lead to any foreseeable safety or capacity concerns. Rather, the new recognition of problem areas in the law and what is not written in it are building the program on shaky ground.
Ross Capon, president and CEO of the National Association for Railroad Passengers, said he remains concerned that there were not demands in the PTC guidelines to recognize the spot of the rear of trains. That aside, Capon says that the ballooning concern with the PTC implementation guideline should result in providing leniency for the railroad companies, but not at the risk of short-changing first-rate rider safety.
“The railroad industry has been working without this technology for a long, long time,” Capon says. “In the broad sweep of events, does taking a few years more to get it right matter? In the year 2020, will anyone care that this took until 2015 or 2017?”
Ditmeyer said the railroad companies set themselves up for delays and technical challenges with their choices of radio frequency and a novice data radio provider. And he expects more bumps in the road as those radios and connected networks test out across different densities and geography. To smooth that path, Ditmeyer said it should be on federal leaders to take over some leadership from the private rail providers, similar to the way the Federal Aviation Administration has in implementing next-generation air traffic control systems.
In development and implementation across the Atlantic is another framework for PTC, the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). Establishing the open standards framework for that parallel but separate system for track safety and monitoring took seven years to formulate, and FRA officials stated there was little direction in terms of collaboration with their European counterparts. And that is a lost opportunity at troubleshooting and savings, says Rick Harnish, executive director at Midwest High Speed Rail Association.
In a program currently marked by serious issues, sharing could mean an extra step toward safety, too, Harnish says. “They don’t have it running yet, either, but are railroads really so different that we have to have a completely different system?”
The Current Track
As it stands now, the PTC systems in the RSIA involve approximately 60,000 miles of freight line track, about one-third of the total track operated by Class I carriers, with an additional 8,400 miles of commuter and inner city passenger lines, according to report figures from early 2012.
The passenger lines alone are expected to exceed $2 billion, not including the acquisition of a communications radio spectrum, with a rough estimate of $5.2 billion more to be paid for by the freight lines. The FRA reported that $1.55 billion has been saved and spent to date on the initial PTC equipment, with another $50 million doled out in federal grants.