PTC: Sounding the Alarm

Aug. 30, 2012
Federal rail report to Congress piles on to PTC debate with noted, “significant” issues that will surely delay program.

A new federal agency report has sounded the loudest signal yet that positive train control (PTC) safety signals 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 conductor distracted with personal cell phone texting ran a stop signal, hitting a commuter train car and killing 25 — outcry fomented in legislative push for formal action on advancing rail line safety and traffic controls.

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

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.

"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. Szabo stressed that, given the law as it stands, his office would continue its "due diligence" course with rail operators on getting the warning and monitoring systems in place.

"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 It 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 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 with America's trains. Rather, they say the new recognition of problem areas in the law and what is not written in it are building the PTC 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, another DOT entity, 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, a non-profit rail advocacy group based in Illinois. 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?" he says.

Capon and Ditmeyer supported the FRA recommendation on introducing PTC in lighter density territories as a way to get the system going faster. And all three experts agreed separately that they expect growing concern from rail providers on footing the bill for these systems as the deadline nears.

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 communications radio spectrum, with a rough estimate of $5.2 billion more to be paid for 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.

Of the few positives in the report and an interview with Szabo were the substantial back-end systems work underway by BNSF that has that rail operator "much, much further along" than the more than three-dozen other Class I freight and passenger rail carriers covered in the PTC requirements.

Southern California's Metrolink, which operates the lines that were the site of the Chatsworth collision, has also answered pressure from its Congressional leaders with tiered implementation of its own PTC. However, that passenger rail operator has delayed its self-ascribed early readiness of a PTC system due to investment and complications in acquiring radio spectrum bandwidth.

Even as lawmakers return to work in Washington, D.C., there is no timetable for any review or alterations by Congressional committee leaders, especially with a presidential election looming.

Szabo said the FRA would next ready for briefings with elected officials and their representatives based on the report, which was delivered four-months ahead of its due date. That gives, among other aspects, more time to reach out to the pool of PTC vendors and other federal agencies that could add insight, particularly the FCC in terms of radio spectrum. In addition, he said they plan to continue work along the current rail law guidelines — regardless of noted issues — to reach for the very basis of the law.

"The undertaking of this is so important, we need to be careful we don't in any way make an attempt where we're rushing, which could have safety consequences or capacity problems," he said.

About the Author

Justin Kern

Justin Kern is a writer and nonprofit marketing manager who lives in Milwaukee with his wife and cats.