FRA releases Q1 2020 PTC progress report as end of year deadline looms

May 18, 2020
The PTC finish line is in sight for much of the rail industry, but FRA says four commuter railroads remain “at risk” of missing the deadline.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released first quarter 2020 positive train control (PTC) progress reports on May 15 as self-reported by each railroad. The good news is that only about two percent of required route miles remain for PTC to be activated. However, FRA labeled four host railroads – all commuter railroads – as “at risk” of missing the Dec. 31, 2020 implementation deadline.  

FRA says the progress reports and current PTC Implementation Plans show nearly all railroads subject to the mandate to install the safety overlay system are operating these systems in revenue service or in revenue service demonstration (RSD), which is an advanced field testing.

PTC was mandated in 2008 to prevent certain rail accidents such as the collision of two trains on the same track. The law affects nearly 58,000 route miles of freight and passenger rail lines and as of March 31, 2020, PTC systems were in RSD or in operation on 56,541 of these route miles.

“We continue to work directly with all ‘to be complaint’ railroads — providing technical support and guidance as requested — to enable them to satisfactorily meet the Congressional deadline,” said FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory. “I’m pleased with the growing number of railroads that have reached critical milestones and continue to encourage all of them to help each other overcome any remaining challenges from their respective lessons learned.”

Amtrak has PTC in operation or in RSD on 99.8 percent of its required route miles and commuter railroads’ collective progress in the first quarter report reflects an 8.5 percent increase in route miles where the technology is active or in RSD over the fourth quarter 2019 report. In total, 63.2 percent of all commuter railroad route miles are PTC-governed.

The ceasing of Virgin Trains USA service means the route miles impacted by the PTC mandate have been removed from the first quarter report and Florida East Coast Railway, which hosted the passenger rail service, is no longer labeled “as risk.” However, four commuter railroads – Metra, New Jersey Transit, TEXRail and New Mexico Rail Runner Express retain the “at risk” label.

FRA says its four factors to evaluate the risk of noncompliance with the mandate include:

(1) The percentage of mandated route miles currently governed by a PTC system, including RSD;

(2) Any unresolved technical issue in implementing a compliant PTC system;

(3) The percentage of a host railroad’s tenant railroads that have achieved required interoperability; and

(4) A host railroad’s expected date to submit its PTC Safety Plan to FRA, necessary to obtain PTC System Certification.

Of the four “at risk” railroads, five percent of New Jersey Transit’s required route miles are PTC governed and more than 54 percent of Metra’s route miles are under PTC operation or RSD. Additionally, Metra submitted its PTC Safety Plan to the FRA in January.

Regarding interoperability, the first quarter report shows a 10 percent increase from the fourth quarter 2019 report in achieved interoperability. For all reporting railroads, interoperability has been achieved in 48.5 percent of the 229 applicable, host-tenant railroad relationships. Interoperability is also a significant technological challenge. Metra’s PTC system must be interoperable with 12 other systems, which is the most of any commuter railroad and more than two of the national freight railroads.

FRA says it remains fully committed to facilitating railroad efforts to complete all remaining work. In addition, FRA is encouraging state departments of transportation and governors to help any at-risk commuter railroad within their states to ensure they have sufficient technical resources and support to meet the end-of-year deadline.

“We strongly urge the collaborating railroads to work in a safe, focused and aggressive manner to meet this end-of-year deadline,” Administrator Batory said. “FRA has provided nearly $2.6 billion in grants and loans and thousands of hours of technical assistance to help railroads fully implement PTC systems.”

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.