Freight Railroads & Positive Train Control

Widespread deployment of new technologies like Positive Train Control (PTC) — strategically designed to address human error — will open the door to an exciting new era of safety and efficiency improvement for U.S. freight railroads. Developing PTC from scratch has been a significant undertaking. Thanks to the relentless dedication of freight rail employees, Class I railroads successfully met the congressionally mandated deadline to have PTC fully operable by the end of 2020. Today, PTC is fully implemented and in operation on 100% of Class I PTC route-miles network wide.

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What is Positive Train Control?

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. These technologies are designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents related to human error occur. PTC systems determine the precise location, direction and speed of trains, warn train operators of potential problems and safely bring the train to a stop if the operator does not act.

Specifically, 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; and movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position. PTC will not prevent accidents caused as a result of track or equipment failure; improper vehicular movement through a grade crossing; trespassing on railroad tracks; or certain types of train operator error.

Strategically Addressing a Leading Cause 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. Record investment — approximately $760 billion since 1980 — and the use of advanced inspection technology have greatly improved the track-caused accident rate.
  • Equipment: Train accidents caused by equipment represent 14% of total accidents. Enhancements to rail cars, advanced equipment inspection technology and industry-wide asset management programs have all contributed to safety gains in this category.
  • Human Error: Accidents caused by human factors constitute the largest category of train accidents, accounting for 41% in 2019. 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 Foundation for Future Innovation

Technology like PTC and automated inspections are helping put the industry’s goal of zero accidents within sight. Greater application of technology to address critical safety issues has the potential to compound these benefits. Beyond safety, PTC systems and their foundational components have the potential to drive further efficiencies and innovation across the nation’s rail network. With detailed geo-mapping, advanced communications systems and upgraded locomotive hardware, railroads have new tools in their ongoing efforts to increase capacity, optimize customer service and reduce fuel use and emissions.

Realizing the full benefit of these future technologies, however, will require modernization of regulations that recognize the value a technologically-advanced rail industry brings to the nation.