Status of Positive Train Control Implementation

By Dave Gambrel

Seven years ago, a tragic train crash in southern California riveted the nation. As far as the nation was concerned, this crash was the last straw. Congress quickly responded by passing a bill that would remove the responsibility of train braking from the hands of man and place it firmly in the “hands” of an automatic control system. Little did they know, they were demanding a system with the technical equivalence of a NASA rocket launch from an industry unschooled in developing automatic control systems, and they were giving the railroads seven years and no money to make it happen. Now, we are on the glide slope of that adventure; the railroads are saying they have spent billions and still won’t make the December 31 deadline.

PTC Implementation Timeline, August 2015 (Railroads: Alaska, BNSF, CN, CP, CSXT, KCS, NS, UP)After a seven-year period of deaths and injuries due to train crashes, the 2008 Metrolink accident in Chatsworth, California, was the event that propelled Congress to pass a mandate for Positive Train Control (PTC). In addition to the increasing calls for implementation of the technology over the last 40 years, momentum had been building following a string of deadly incidents. A total of 15 freight and 10 passenger accidents over the seven-year period between 2001 and 2008 resulted in more than 34 deaths and 600 injuries. All of the accidents were said to be “PTC preventable.” Congress mandated that railroads implement PTC systems by December 31, though they did not ask if this giant leap into rail system control technology was possible. They certainly did not ask the railroads if they were up to inventing and building gigantic interoperable (capable of working on any railroad system) control systems capable of remotely stopping any train in danger of running into another train.

According to a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) status report in August, a majority of railroads will not meet this statutory deadline. Their PTC implementation timeline for eight major railroads shows that they do not expect to complete the system in all respects until 2020.

The derived progress chart may not explain why certain railroads appear to have done nearly nothing in seven years, but it does illustrate the need to dig for answers. If we look at the “big four” companies (BNSF, CSX, NS and UP), we can and should ask them. For example, since UP has said they have spent $1.8 billion so far, why is there a big zero in the third column? Answer: the locomotive hardware installation requires three trips to the shop, so railroads may have reported zeroes when they had partially installed hardware on many locomotives. UP has completed two phases on 4,500 locomotives, but has reported zero locomotives completely equipped. In this case, the column heading leads to a deceptive answer.

On August 28, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote to pertinent railroad CEOs concerning the deadline imposed by a fearful Congress in 2008. Here is what the “big four” said about what will happen if Congress does not extend the deadline:

  • BNSF (Carl Ice): “We are developing potential communications to our customers and passenger rail tenants in the event that no extension enacted by the end of October, as these stakeholders may need to make preparations or alternative plans well before the current December 31, 2015, deadline.” Has spent $1.5 billion, expects to spend $0.5 billion more.
  • CSX (Mike Ward): “CSX is in an untenable position. On the one hand, we will be unable to comply with the RSIA (Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008) on January 1, yet continuing operations to satisfy our common carrier obligation would mean CSX would be violating the law. It cannot be in the interest of U.S. transportation to sharply impair rail operations solely because of an unstudied deadline achieved through political compromise. The devastating consequences of crippling the U.S. rail network, and the threat of massive FRA fines, cannot change the reality that the deadline is impossible.” Has spent $1.3 billion, expects to spend $0.6 billion more.
  • NS (James Squires): “First, NS is considering taking legal action to invalidate the deadline as a violation of due process given its arbitrary nature and the potential to deprive the railroad of cash through fines imposed by FRA. This deadline appears to have been selected with no analysis or feasibility inquiry. Second, NS independently is considering ceasing to ship TIH (toxic by inhalation) commodities and declining to host passenger trains on its network effective January 1, 2016.”
  • UP (Lance Fritz): “It is our plan to embargo all TIH (toxic by inhalation) traffic as well as passenger traffic on our railroad. TIH traffic would be embargoed several weeks prior to January 1, 2016, to ensure an orderly shutdown and clear our system of TIH trainloads prior to the end of the year. We expect the TIH embargo notice prior to Thanksgiving. Commuter operations would cease before midnight on December 31, and long distance passenger trains will stop originating several days earlier to ensure that all passengers reach their destinations before the deadline. Has spent $1.8 billion, expects to spend $0.2 billion more.

Once the railroads stop hauling passengers, we can expect to see a sharp increase in automobile traffic, as people will still need to get to work. Look for this to happen when people return after New Year’s Day. Expect traffic jams day after day, and higher accident rates. Is this what Congress had in mind when it set an unreachable deadline?

Once the railroads stop hauling TIH, highway driving conditions will worsen gradually as tank trucks begin to pick up loads from chemical plants. Chlorine is needed for water purification, and some communities may not be able to produce clean water. Anhydrous ammonia is needed for producing fertilizer, so shortages could result in poorer crops and higher prices. If there are not enough trucks to carry the TIH products, more trucks will have to be built, and this will create a vehicle need that is presently not required. CSX alone carried 17,000 carloads of TIH chemicals in 2014, which is the equivalent of about 46,000 truckloads of the large tank truck model.

  • The current legal deadline for PTC installation is December 31, but the operational deadline to avoid disruptions for Americans who depend on rail transportation comes much sooner. Congress must vote by the end of October to extend the PTC deadline. The consequences for inaction will be devastating and could lead to a world where:
  • Transportation of all goods over freight rail grinds to a halt;
  • The U.S. economy loses $30 billion;
  • Household incomes drop by $17 billion;
  • 700,000 Americans lose their jobs; and
  • Millions of commuters are stranded.

Just a little more than two years ago, it was obvious that the December 31 deadline could not be met. The September Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress said, “Given the implementation challenges railroads face in meeting the deadline, and to help FRA manage its limited resources, Congress should consider amending RSIA as FRA has requested. Specifically, Congress should consider granting FRA the authority to extend the deadline on certain rail lines on a case-by-case basis, grant provisional certification of PTC systems, and approve the use of alternative safety technologies in lieu of PTC to improve safety.” Congress did not grant such authority to FRA, so our new FRA Administrator Sara Feinberg finds herself on the horns of dilemma. She has no choice but to enforce the law effective January 1, 2016, unless Congress grants extensions. She will become the target of angry people claiming she is to blame for the chaos caused by the stoppage of essential rail services, and that will not be fair.

Table 2

President Barack Obama could avoid this showdown by passing HR22, the Drive Bill, which was approved by both Senate and House. Instead, he plans to enforce a deadline for rail operators to install safety technology by the end of the year, despite warnings from railroads including Union Pacific and Amtrak that they can’t meet the mandate and would have to suspend some service without an extension.

“Congress enacted this law, including the December 31, 2015, deadline, and we believe it is important that the Department of Transportation enforce the law that Congress passed,” Frank Benenati, a White House spokesman, said the day after lawmakers released a letter from Amtrak saying it might suspend some passenger service if the delay isn’t enacted.

This is not the time or the place for getting tough, because there is nothing to be gained but chaos and national economic problems. Cracking down with outrageous fines could eventually bring some railroads to financial weakness without producing any evidence of speedier compliance. It is, in fact, a time for Obama to dig into the facts and negotiate an extension rather than allowing the economy to go completely haywire. It could be a wonderful opportunity for him to leave an honorable legacy.

Railroads are asking Congress to allow for a three-year delay to install the systems and another two years before they must be fully operational, saying the mandate has been expensive and they’ve faced regulatory delays from agencies including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to get it installed. Senate legislation would require the system to be installed by 2018, though not necessarily fully operational. A House bill introduced last month would also require installation by 2018 and would lay out provisions for two more extensions.

Amtrak this week was the latest railroad to warn Congress it may halt or delay some service if the December 31 deadline stays in place. While Amtrak said it will have the technology up and running on the track between Washington and Boston that it owns, passenger trains in most of the country run on freight rail tracks.

Sen. Thune referred in his letter to HR 22 as a vehicle under which the extension may be granted. The best we can determine about its status is "awaiting passage.” If the legislation passes and is approved by Obama, it will extend the December 31 deadline. The hope is that Congress can get this wrapped up by the end of October, but there is no guarantee. They have a lot on their plate right now and there are only so many legislating days left on the calendar, but it is definitely, unquestionably, a priority. The railroads and the shippers are all on the same page here, and the effort to get the deadline passed has been Herculean. If HR 22 can't do the trick, then our legislators will have to find some vehicle to do it — appropriations?

The ultimate objective of the RSIA legislation is turning over the brains of the entire rail operating system to a perfect automatic control system. Admittedly, the first reaction is probably good; we are finally going to have something that eliminates the imperfections in locomotive driving. Perhaps it is the ramblings of a former control systems engineer, but the idea of depending on a gigantic open-access control network does cause some concerns. It is clear that most railroads are doing everything in their power to meet the deadline. Given enough time, the system will be built, and it will work. While no one would question the objective of reducing the number of rail-related accidents as quickly as possible, we cannot disregard the possible complications of such a gigantic open access control system.

1) Security problems, such as terrorist hacking of the control system. In July 2015, hackers took control of a car and crashed it into a ditch by remotely breaking into its dashboard computer from 10 miles away. In the first breach of its kind, security experts killed the engine and applied the brakes on the Jeep Cherokee, sending it veering off the road — all while sitting on their sofa.
2) Communication problems, such as connection dropouts. Who can imagine tens of thousands of wireless connections working perfectly all the time? When was the last time you got a cell phone drop-out while driving on the highway?

Simple weather-induced or atmospheric dropouts could cause data input errors or problems.
3) Weather and atmospheric problems, such as patch ice or flash floods. Track friction will have to be an input to the constantly changing train stopping algorithm. How does one instantaneously measure and apply sudden large changes in coefficient of friction when the weather decides to do something unexpected and radical?
4) Sudden unexpected stops, resulting in passenger injury in the cabin. No one could blame the poor train management computer if it demands a hard stop due to bad data.
This section is not meant to throw cold water on the PTC project, but to call attention to a few concerns that should be addressed if the project proceeds. Perhaps they already have been.

About the Author
Dave Gambrel, coal transportation and logistics consultant, was a control systems engineer for Honeywell in the early years of his career. Contact: [email protected].