America’s freight railroads met — and far exceed — the December 31st, 2018 deadline for installing Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, which will make an already safe network even safer.
During a September 2018 Congressional hearing, AAR’s former CEO Ed Hamberger outlined the Class I railroads’ recent progress in the development and deployment of this transformative safety technology as well as what to expect moving forward. Amtrak’s Chief Operating Officer Scot Naparstek also testified about the great strides Amtrak has made in coordinating with host freight railroads and implementing PTC across its routes.
PTC is a sophisticated set of technologies designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents caused by human error can occur. The four primary types of train accidents it targets include: train-to-train collisions; derailments caused by excessive speed; unauthorized incursions by trains onto sections of track where maintenance is taking place; and the movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position.
To do this, PTC integrates an onboard locomotive system to monitor a train’s position and speed and activate braking as necessary; a wayside system to track signals, switches and track circuits; and a back office server to store all information necessary to enforce operations restrictions, such as speed limits and train composition, and transmit that information to each individual onboard locomotive system. PTC’s backbone connecting it all together is a wireless data communications system capable of handling the vast amount of data and then quickly and seamlessly transmitting the information between them.
Since the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) was enacted, railroads have committed tremendous human and financial capital to developing and deploying a safe, reliable PTC system. By the time this technology is fully operational nationwide, the AAR estimates that freight railroads will have spent more than $11 billion of their own private — not taxpayer — dollars on PTC development and deployment.
Thanks to the dedication of freight railroads working toward this goal, the industry continues to meet critical installation benchmarks. By the end of 2018, about 80% of Class I PTC route-miles were in operation, and some Class I railroads had PTC fully operational on their networks. Each of the Class I railroads had 100% of the necessary wayside, back office and locomotive hardware installations completed; all the required wireless spectrum in place; and all required employee training completed.
Essential work still remains to ensure these complex systems are working as intended. Over the next two years, railroads will be resolving any technical operational challenges that will inevitably arise within a system of such unprecedented size and scope, including perhaps the biggest challenge — ensuring each railroad’s system is interoperable and works seamlessly with one another. Put another way, a CSX locomotive must behave like a Norfolk Southern locomotive when it is traveling on Norfolk Southern track; a BNSF locomotive must be compatible with Union Pacific’s PTC system when it is on Union Pacific track; and so on.
Thanks to freight railroads’ commitment to continually improving network safety, all Class I railroads will have PTC fully implemented during 2020. Until then, railroads will continue to collaborate to successfully achieve full interoperability for a completely implemented national PTC system. Every day, the Class I railroads are making progress on PTC, which makes each new day on the rail network safer than the one before.