LAST month marked the seventh anniversary of an accident which became a turning point for rail safety in North America. On September 12 2008 a Metrolink commuter train ran through a red signal at Chatsworth, California, and entered a single track section before colliding head-on a few minutes later with a Union Pacific (UP) freight train. Twenty-five people died and more than 130 were injured.


Bakken Crude EastThe accident galvanised political support in favour of rail safety enhancements and a little over a month later, the US Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) was signed into law by president George W Bush mandating the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) on all Class 1 railways transporting products classed as toxic inhalation hazards (TIHs) and all railways carrying passengers by the end of December 2015.

This was a formidable proposition - 97,000 route-km and thousands of locomotives would need to be equipped to operate using technology which at this point had not been fully developed and tested within a little over seven years.

The railways have made considerable progress towards that objective and according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR) they have spent $US 5.7bn on PTC so far. However, with two months remaining until the deadline the PTC programme is nowhere near complete and Washington has so far shown little inclination to give the industry more time.

Last month the Association of American Railroads (AAR) said it estimates that by the end of the year more than 14% of infrastructure earmarked for PTC installation will be equipped, 31% of locomotives will have been upgraded, 69% of wayside units and 63% of base station radios will have been installed, and around a third of 114,515 railway employees will be PTC-trained.

According to the American Public Transportation Association (Apta), PTC will be installed on 29% of commuter rail lines by the end of the year, with full implementation by 2020.

A report published by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on August 7 notes that railways have faced a number of challenges in the rollout, including wireless spectrum availability, the limited number of suppliers, and potential for radio interference.

The FRA says it has dedicated significant resources to PTC since the passage of RSIA, approving all 41 of the railways' implementation plans on time; working with the Federal Communications Commission and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to resolve issues related to spectrum use; building a PTC system test bed at the Transportation Technology Center (TTCI) in Pueblo, Colorado; and making loans available through the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) programme.

The FRA says a lack of public funding may be contributing to the delays while Congress has failed to provide a guaranteed revenue stream for implementation on commuter rail lines. Nonetheless, the FRA has used the "resources it has available" to help roll out PTC on commuter lines, pointing to a $US 967m loan agreed with New York MTA in May this year through RRIF to support PTC deployment on Metro North and LIRR.


The railways have acted quickly in response to RSIA, recognising that cooperation is vital to meet the deadline. PTC 220, a consortium including CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific, was set up to obtain wireless spectrum at the 220MHz frequency the industry needed to achieve the necessary coverage, reliability and security for PTC operation. This effectively meant that the Class 1 railways needed to build a private radio frequency network to comply with RSIA.

In addition, BNSF, NS, CSX and UP created Meteorcom to design a software-based radio capable of operating on the 220MHz frequency. According to NS, no manufacturers were producing radios to this standard at that time. Meteorcom also developed a messaging system to securely transmit data between different PTC systems.

The railways cite a number of other factors inhibiting the rollout of PTC, including lack of supplier capacity and federal requirements for public hearings on wayside mast placement. The FRA did not issue its final rule on PTC standards, which must be incorporated into a compliant system, until 2010 but following a legal challenge by the AAR, the final revised version with revisions was not published until 2014.

In a letter to Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee chairman Mr John Thune dated September 9, Canadian Pacific Railway president and CEO Mr Keith Creel stated: "Development of the new technology, particularly mission-critical software, has proven extremely challenging and taken longer than expected. This is due in part to the unavailability of spectrum with ample bandwidth on a nationwide basis. The need to share the limited bandwidth poses a significant hardware and software engineering challenge for the entire communications network. Thus although CP has been prepared to commence Revenue Service Demonstration (RSD) since March 2015, it has only just received a version of the onboard software which, subject to verification, is RSD capable."

Creel also notes CP's installation of wayside equipment was suspended by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) for 18 months "while the industry, tribal leaders, and the FCC hammered out a path forward." CP warns that without an extension it may not be able to lawfully accommodate passenger and hazardous goods traffic on its US network beyond December 31, a position echoed by other Class 1s, which have begun warning their customers that services could be suspended if Congress fails to act.

"Failure to increase the deadline would pose profoundly serious consequences and costs for the United States," CSX chairman and CEO Mr Michael Ward said in a letter to Thune on September 9. "Operation of trains after the deadline would be an outright and untenable violation of the law giving rise to fines and loss of public confidence."

CSX has equipped 2700 locomotives, installed 2500 wayside interface units and 465 PTC radio base stations but it estimates the "arduous and disruptive task of signal system replacement" will not be completed until the end of 2018. So far CSX has invested $US 1.3bn in PTC and its total spend is set to reach $US 1.9bn.

Ward notes that CSX and the other Class 1s are common carriers, meaning they are legally obliged to carry freight. This means that if they operate passenger and TIH services on lines that are not equipped with PTC they will be breaking the law. However, if they suspend the operation of services on these lines they will break another law.

The case for an extension was boosted on September 16 with the publication of a report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), which confirmed that most railways will need more time and warned that legislation to extend the deadline will now be required.

The GAO found that most railways interviewed still need one to five years to overcome the significant challenges they have encountered and complete implementation. The report also states that FRA management of implementation was insufficient to properly monitor individual railways' progress, and the GAO recommends that the FRA develops a plan to hold railroads accountable for making progress on PTC.

The report acknowledges the technical challenges faced by the railways, including:

  • the need to design, produce and install over 20 new major components
  • a limited number of manufacturers for those components
  • multiple phases of testing and system integration
  • trying to meet the current deadline before defects have been identified and addressed
  • difficulty in obtaining radio spectrum and FCC permits for communications infrastructure
  • delays in approval of safety plans by regulators, and
  • the complexity of achieving interoperability among varying types of PTC systems.

The report was requested by committee leaders from the Senate and House of Representatives, including Thune and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Mr Bill Shuster.

"This report confirms that the PTC mandate is not achievable, and extending the deadline is essential to preventing significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country," Shuster says. "I am committed to working with Senator Thune and our colleagues to address the clear need for an extension, and to ensure that railways implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner."

Thune added: "Passenger and freight railways need time beyond the current deadline to finish implementation of a complex system that relies on new technology. Failure to extend this legal deadline would create significant hardships for customers and passengers who rely on rail. Passing an extension that includes meaningful accountability for PTC implementation is the best thing Congress can do."

AAR president and CEO Mr Edward Hamberger argues that the GAO report confirms what freight and passenger railroads have been saying for years: Congress needs to extend the PTC deadline. "The GAO report reinforces the industry's contention that PTC is an extremely complex technology that requires more time to install and test safely," he says. "Railfreight operators have always contended that the congressionally-mandated 2015 deadline for having PTC fully functional and being used coast-to-coast by passenger and freight alike was not realistic. The fact that can't be ignored is that time is quickly running out for taking action to extend the deadline and avoid the dire consequences of not doing so."

Hamberger warns that there is a risk of service shutdowns and major disruption if Congress fails to extend the deadline by the end of October. "Railways are beginning to notify their customers of the possibility of an impending rail shutdown as they, too, have to prepare for such a worst-case scenario," he says. "Congress can't wait until November or December when the clock is about to run out. If lawmakers want to avert massive disruption it must take action now to extend the deadline."

In a statement issued in response to the GAO report on September 17, Apta said: "The report provides strong evidence that Congress needs to act now to extend the deadline beyond December 31. Safety is the number one priority of the public transportation industry and the commuter railroads are 100% committed to developing and installing PTC technology. Therefore it is our goal that this technology and its many components are developed, installed, and tested successfully and safely.  The report supports what the industry, the FRA and the GAO have said in the past: significant challenges of technology, spectrum, and funding make the end of year deadline unattainable."

Apta says that $US 950m has been invested so far in PTC on commuter lines, but at least another $US 3.48bn will be needed to complete the rollout, and Congress has only allocated $US 50m towards achieving that aim. There is also significant variation in the rate of progress between commuter rail operators. In Los Angeles, Metrolink says it expects its 550km network to be fully compliant with RSIA by December 31, but in Chicago, Metra says it will need until 2019 to complete installation on its 1931km network.

With Congress seemingly unwilling to budge on the December deadline, the FRA is preparing to issue sanctions against railways for failure to comply with RSIA. "Starting on January 1, FRA will impose penalties on railroads that have not fully implemented PTC," the FRA's acting administrator Mrs Sarah Feinberg stated at the end of June. "Fines will be based on FRA's penalty guidelines, which establish different penalties depending on the violation. There are many different violations, such as $US 15,000-25,000 for failure to adapt locomotives."

These penalties could be assessed per violation per day and could vary depending on mitigating or aggravating factors. Enforcement orders could be used to force the railways to speed up PTC implementation and railways may also face fines for operational violations as well as failure to equip infrastructure and locomotives.

It has been apparent for some time that the December deadline was unachievable - an FRA report to Congress in June 2012 warned that "both freight and passenger railroads have encountered significant technical and programmatic issues that make accomplishment of those plans questionable." Yet today, with only two months remaining, the deadline stands fast.

The next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether policymakers decide to penalise the railways for failing to implement PTC within the legally-specified timescale, or whether they take a more conciliatory, and arguably pragmatic, approach - working with the industry to ensure the rollout is completed safely and without disrupting the railway's customers.