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 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.

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.

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.

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. Record investment — an average of $26 billion each year — and the use of advanced inspection technology have led to dramatic improvement in the rate of track-caused accidents.
  • 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 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.

More PTC Information

How Positive Train Control Works

Positive Train Control is advanced technology that automatically and safely stops 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. Thanks to the tireless efforts of our employees, the nation’s 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.

 

Understanding Positive Train Control Deadlines

In 2015, Congress extended the RSIA deadline to ensure development and installation of PTC would work as it should. That deadline included a two-year testing period beyond 2018 to implement a fully-interoperable PTC system. Class I railroads have successfully met all statutory deadlines for this important safety technology that adds another layer of protection to America’s rail network.

Installation

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.

Testing

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 nation’s Class I railroads have successfully met this requirement.

The Foundation for Future Innovation

The U.S. freight rail industry has embarked on an exciting new era of innovation. Technology like positive train control 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.