FRA: PTC is operational on all required route miles

Dec. 30, 2020
The achievement comes two days before the Dec. 31, 2020, congressional deadline.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) says Positive Train Control (PTC) technology has been implemented on all required route miles in the United States.  

FRA has certified each host railroad’s PTC system complies with the technical requirements of PTC, interoperability has been achieved between applicable host and tenant railroads and PTC is operational on all 57,536 freight and passenger railroad route miles.

The safety overlay system’s implementation was mandated by Congress through the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) and railroads had until Dec. 31, 2020, to complete the task.

“Achieving 100 percent PTC implementation is a tremendous accomplishment and reflects the [U.S. Department of Transportation’s] top priorities – safety, innovation and infrastructure,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.

PTC systems are designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zones and movements of trains through switches left in the wrong position.

Components of the modern PTC system have been included in the National Transportation Safety Board’s “Most Wanted List” going back 30 years, but a September 2008 accident between a Metrolink commuter train and Union Pacific freight train in California where 25 people were killed and 135 more were injured proved to be the event prompting Congress to pass RSIA. Metrolink became the first passenger railroad to achieve full implementation of the PTC in December 2018.

“The announcement that all freight, Amtrak, intercity and commuter railroads will meet the deadline for implementing positive train control is a major win for public safety,” said Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR). “While there is always room for safety improvements and more work lies ahead, completion of PTC installation ushers in a new chapter in railroading safety.”

FRA points out the achievement is the culmination of more than a decade of sustained and direct engagement and collaboration among FRA and the 41 railroads subject to the statutory mandate, including seven Class 1 railroads, Amtrak, 28 commuter railroads and five other freight railroads that host regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service.

Challenges were plentiful as PTC was being developed beginning early when issues securing spectrum arose, as well as where railroads could install infrastructure, such as poles. Later in the process, vendor availability, software issues and the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the success of some railroads meeting the Dec. 31 deadline.

RSIA and FRA’s implementing regulations require PTC systems to be interoperable, meaning that the locomotives of host and tenant railroads operating on the same main line must communicate with and respond to the PTC system, including during uninterrupted movements over property boundaries. Achieving interoperability was a final hurdle for many railroads due to its technological complexity.

The cost of the technology was an ongoing challenge. USDOT has awarded approximately $3.4 billion in grant and loan funding for work implementing the technology. Commuter railroads are estimated to have spent $4 billion to implement PTC, while Class 1 freight railroads spent nearly $11.5 billion.

FRA recognized reaching the end of the implementation process encompasses thousands of hours of testing and deployment, innovative technological solutions and a tremendous amount of coordination among nearly 100 host and tenant railroads, railroad associations, material suppliers and service providers.

“On behalf of extraordinary professionals at FRA and myself, I congratulate the railroads, particularly their frontline workers, as well as PTC system suppliers and vendors on this transformative accomplishment,” said FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory. “Furthermore, many industry associations, including the Association of American Railroads, American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, American Public Transportation Association, Commuter Rail Coalition, National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, Railway Supply Institute and Railway Systems Suppliers, have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to supporting this unprecedented undertaking.”

Batory added: “PTC is a critical piece and new dimension of safety in the railroad industry, but it does not take the place of the men and women who operate and maintain freight and passenger trains. At its core, PTC is a risk reduction system that will make a safe industry even safer and provide a solid foundation upon which additional safety improvements will be realized.”

While the achievement provides a bookend to 12 years of work, the rail industry is focused on the future and the efficiencies that can be delivered with the technology.

“Beyond safety, PTC systems and their foundational components hold promise to drive further efficiencies and innovation across the nation’s rail network. Armed with detailed geomapping, advanced communications systems and upgraded locomotive hardware, railroads are working to unlock the promise of this technology to improve efficiency and drive further operational innovations,” explained the Association of American Railroads.

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.