WASHINGTON -- A final rule on how positive train control technology (PTC) is to be implemented by the nation's railroads was issued Jan. 12 by the FRA.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated that freight, intercity passenger and commuter rail routes have operable PTC in place no later than Dec. 31, 2015. Railroads must submit their final PTC plans to the FRA by April 16. The FRA said this final rule will allow railroads to meet the April 16 compliance date.
PTC, which has been on the National Transportation Safety Board’s "Most Wanted" list since 1990 -- and which has strong support from the UTU -- utilizes on-board and external track signaling and remote dispatch center computer and satellite technology to assist train crews avoid train collisions. PTC components include digital radio communications, computers, geographical information systems (GIS) and the Global Positioning System (GPS).
The technology is not capable of replacing two sets of eyes and ears in the cab.
In fact, in publishing its final rule, the FRA pushed aside railroad arguments against requiring a separate PTC screen display for each crew member in the cab, meaning railroads must provide separate screens for the engineer and conductor.
The rule provides: "The PTC systems onboard apparatus shall be so arranged that each member of the crew assigned to perform duties in the locomotive can receive the same PTC information displayed in the same manner and execute any functions necessary to that crew member's duties. The locomotive engineer shall not be required to perform functions related to the PTC system while the train is moving that have the potential to distract the locomotive engineer from performance of other safety-critical duties."
The Journal of Commerce reported Jan. 12 that "with railroads objecting in the past decade that PTC systems were too costly to deploy, the FRA judged that safety benefits did not justify the large investments. It took steps to help develop and encourage the use of PTC systems but did not require them. However, Congress ordered it after a September 2008 crash in which a [Los Angeles Metrolink] commuter train in California struck a [Union Pacific] freight train, killing 25 people."
The law mandates PTC on track carrying passenger trains and freight trains that contain highly toxic cargo.
DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said PTC would help avert derailments caused by excess speed and accidents caused by human error or misaligned switches, as well as help prevent harm to maintenance-of-way workers.
A former Burlington Northern chief engineer for research communications and control systems, Steven R. Ditmeyer, who was an architect of an early PTC system known as ARES (Advanced Railroad Electronic System) -- and later an associate FRA administrator for research and development -- told designnews.com in October 2008, "One would never want to say there's absolutely no chance for a collision or over-speed accident, but with PTC you've certainly significantly reduced the probability of one occurring. A lot more devices and people must fail before an accident can occur,"
Dow Jones newswire said federal officials estimate the cost of installing PTC will be some $5.5 billion, but "some of that burden will be relieved by government aid, including funds from the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan. Dow Jones said the FRA will announce later this winter "how it will distribute rail funds from the stimulus package."
BNSF CEO Matt Rose told Bloomberg News in October 2009 that PTC installation on his railroad could cost $2 billion. "It's in everybody's best interest that we lower the cost of this installation tremendously and not just turn a tin ear to the railroads’ whining about this," Rose told Bloomberg. "This is one of those great examples of regulation gone awry where there will be unintended consequences."
A BNSF pilot program, being monitored by the FRA and called Electronic Train Management System (ETMS), is being tested on some 300 miles of track in Texas and Oklahoma. It relies on GPS in concert with a geographical information system to determine train location. The train and engine service crew receives data about the train and track status on cab displays that indicate authority limit, speed, switch position and track integrity (broken rails and signal aspect). Should the crew fail to respond to a warning, ETMS is designed to stop the train.
Two studies done for the FRA by outside contractors over the past two decades -- rejected by the carriers -- assert that improved service quality flowing from PTC technology will provide material dollar-value benefits to the railroads by easing congestion and increasing schedule reliability.
The Wall Street Journal reported in October that carriers estimate PTC might have to be installed on as much as 80 percent of mainline track, "far more than the industry [earlier] anticipated."
To read the entire rule, click here.