Improving Safety Through Positive Train Control

America’s freight railroads continue to strive towards an accident-free future through a tireless commitment to addressing the major causes of accidents — track, equipment and human error. Continued safety improvement in the years ahead, however, will become harder to achieve and require new and different solutions.

Technology is one of those solutions. Widespread deployment of new technologies like Positive Train Control (PTC), designed to address human error, will open the door to an exciting new era of safety and efficiency improvement for U.S. freight railroads.

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What is Positive Train Control (PTC)?

Positive Train Control (PTC) systems are technologies designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents related to human error occur.

Mandated by Congress as part of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), PTC has been an unprecedented technological undertaking requiring each railroad to develop — from scratch — a system comprised of hundreds of thousands of components that must work across an interconnected network of freight, passenger and commuter railroads.

In order to work safely and be fail-safe, PTC systems must be able to determine the precise location, direction and speed of trains, warn train operators of potential problems and bring the train to a stop if the operator does not act.

Strategically Addressing the Root Causes of Accidents

America’s freight railroads have a strategic approach to safety, focusing on the leading causes of incidents — track, equipment and human error — while harnessing innovative solutions to reach an ultimate goal of zero accidents. Those efforts have led to dramatic safety improvement.

  • Track: Track-caused accidents account for 27% of total train accidents. Freight railroads have reduced the track-caused accident rate 26% since between 2009 and 2018. Record investment — an average of $26 billion each year — and the use of advanced inspection technology have been important catalysts.
  • Equipment: Train accidents caused by equipment represent 14% of total accidents. The equipment-caused accident rate is down 11% since 2009. Enhancements to rail cars, advanced equipment inspection technology and industry-wide asset management programs have all contributed to this safety gain.
  • Human Error: Accidents caused by human factors constitute the largest category of train accidents, accounting for 38% in 2017. The human factors-caused accident rate is down 3% since 2009. Rigorous employee training and fatigue management programs are just a few of the initiatives railroads apply to reduce these incidents and PTC provides a backup extra layer of protection to those efforts.

The Role of Positive Train Control Technology

PTC technology is designed to prevent:

  • Train-to-train collisions.
  • Derailments caused by excessive speed.
  • Unauthorized train movement onto sections of track where maintenance activities are taking place.
  • Movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position.

PTC technology will not prevent:

  • Accidents caused as a result of track or equipment failure.
  • Improper vehicular movement through a grade crossing.
  • Trespassing on railroad tracks.
  • Certain types of train operator error.

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How Positive Train Control Works

Positive Train Control is advanced technology designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents related to human error occur.

Current PTC Status for Freight Railroads

Developing PTC from scratch has been a significant undertaking and each of the nation’s Class I railroads have made substantial progress on PTC. They are on track to meet the congressionally mandated deadline to have PTC fully operable by the end of 2020. As of August 2020, PTC is in operation on 100% of Class I PTC route-miles network wide.

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Understanding Positive Train Control Deadlines

Railroads are committed to making a safe network safer and that includes getting PTC deployment right. In 2015, Congress extended the RSIA deadline to ensure development and installation of PTC would work as it should. The new deadline included a two-year testing period beyond 2018 to implement a fully-interoperable PTC system. Class I railroads are on track to meet all statutory deadlines for this important safety technology that will add another layer of protection to America’s rail network.


By December 31, 2018, freight railroads were required to have installed all hardware, acquired all necessary radio spectrum, trained all required employees and have implemented 50% of PTC territory or route miles.


Class I railroads met the 2018 installation deadline and are eligible for up to an additional 24 months to test and ensure the system is fully interoperable.

Full Operation

By December 31, 2020, freight railroads are required to have testing complete and Positive Train Control fully implemented across the required network.

The Foundation for Future Innovation

The U.S. freight rail industry has embarked on an exciting new era of innovation. Technology like automated inspections is already proving effective at addressing accidents caused by track and equipment problems. Further automation of train operations — the locomotive itself, for example — has the potential to compound these safety benefits while increasing capacity and reducing fuel use and emissions.

Today’s PTC technology provides the necessary foundation for tomorrow’s advances in automated train operations. While, there is no industry-wide plan for deployment of autonomous trains, U.S. freight railroads are committed to developing and using automation where it can improve safety and customer service.

Realizing the full benefit of these future technologies, however, will require modernization of regulations that recognize the reality and value of today’s technologically-advanced rail industry.