Could PTC Deadline Cause a Transportation Crisis?

Oct. 19, 2015
If Congress fails to extend the deadline for PTC, passenger and freight railroads may need to suspend service.

If Congress fails to extend the deadline for PTC, passenger and freight railroads may need to suspend service.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and Association of American Railroads (AAR) held a call for national media Oct. 19, presenting the impact of the positive train control (PTC) deadline Dec. 31, deadline for the commuter and freight railroads. Unless the deadline is extended, many freight and passenger railroads could suspend service.

The industry leaders were questioned on the pertinence of the call, as “Congress has every intention of passing the extension.” APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy responded saying the issue is being raised because it’s very real and they need to keep the pressure on Congress so it’s not put off until the end of the year. “We’re presenting the facts of what is happening so Congress can make the best decisions with the timeliness they need.”

The facts of the impact:

  • 26 Commuter Rail Systems
  • 1.7 Million Passenger Trips Daily
  • 90 Freight Railroads
  • 500,000 Car Loads of Freight a Week

The freight and commuter rail industries pride themselves on being one of safest forms of travel and AAR President and CEO Edward Hamberger said it’s not the fines making the decision to suspend service if the deadline is not extended. For freight, 2014 was the safest year on record. That’s on top 0f 2013, which was the safest at that time, and 2012, the safest at that time. He stressed, “You don’t achieve that by deciding which safety laws you’re going to obey. You have to obey every regulation.”

Metra Executive Director and CEO Donald Orseno echoed that sentiment, stressing safety is Metra’s No. 1 priority. “We don’t pick and choose safety rules.”

PTC Challenges

Melaniphy and Hamberger explained the complicated nature of installing PTC: A complex system that employs new technologies that monitor and control train movement for an extra layer of safety that also requires extensive testing. Adding to the challenge, there is a lack of radio spectrum, a shortage of components and personnel, and a lack of funding.

Substantial progress has been made and billions of dollars have been spent, but much more needs to be done. Melaniphy said there has been more than $1 billion spent by the commuter railroads. $3.5 billion is needed to install PTC and Congress has only provided $50 million. Hamberger said by the end of this year the freight industry will have spent $6 billion to meet the deadline. They are projecting it will take $10 billion to complete installation. By the end of this year, about 12,000 miles will be complete but it is needed for 70,000 track miles. 

Hamberger stated, “In 2008 when Congress enacted the Railroad Safety Improvement Act, they did not appreciate the scope or complexity. It’s not for lack of trying but we’re not going to make it.”

In current testing, railroads are seeing a 30 to 40 percent error rate, Hamberger said. “This is a safety technology employees will be relying on,” he stressed. He also compared it to the airline industry, if they were installing a new traffic control system. “Would you want to be on the airplane if they were seeing a 30 to 40 percent error rate?”

Commuter Rail Perspective

Three representatives from commuter rail lines were on the call to offer their perspectives. Orseno of Metra in Chicago; Virginia Railway Express (VRE) Chief Executive Officer Douglas Allen; and Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) Director of Operations, Planning and Programming Brian Schmidt.

Metra provides about 300,000 passenger trips per day and has 1,200 miles of track. If it has to shut down, Orseno said there would need to be about 29 more lanes of expressway to accommodate the amount of cars needed to transport those commuters.

Allen and Schmidt reiterated the impact on congestion in their service areas, but also explained they operate on someone else’s track. Allen said they’ve done everything they can to implement PTC and will be substantially complete by this year in getting the equipment installed on their locomotives and cab cars. The host railroads are working diligently to install and test it on all the track, but they will not be complete by the deadline. Schmidt said ACE is completed with its equipment, but the host railroads aren’t ready. They’ve done testing in parts of California but there are a lot of failure rates on the testing at this point.

Next Steps

The Senate passed legislation extending the installation deadline at the end of July as part of MAP-21 reauthorization and there was bipartisan support for that effort. Bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation Committee proposed legislation, Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act (H.R. 3651), but has not yet acted on it.

Melaniphy said, “PTC is about interoperability. We are all very committed to pushing this forward as quickly as we can.” But he also pointed out, “We have to get this right. Getting it done fast doesn’t benefit any of us.”