The train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., in September 2008 brought nationwide attention to the issue of rail safety, with operator distraction and train control of a particular focus. In that accident, a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train crashed head-on. In part motivated by that accident and others in recent years, Congress initiated a push to improve rail safety, setting a deadline for all rail lines in the country to be equipped with positive train control (PTC) systems.
The FRA began reporting to Congress on PTC in 1993, says Mark Hartong, electronics engineer at the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) Office of Safety Assurance and Compliance. "In 1997, we began working on a rule for voluntary implementation and that rule came into effect in 2005. It's been of great interest to the railroads and the agency as something that needed to be done, and the unfortunate accident in Chatsworth was sort of the final motivator to make it from a voluntary implementation schedule to a statutory mandate," he says.
PTC poses challenges
PTC comprises the most pressing rail safety issue, due to the 2015 deadline.
Steve McEligott, rail systems engineering manager at infrastructure construction consulting firm HNTB, says that although the PTC requirement will pose high expense and personnel concerns for rail, it is a step the industry needs to take toward improving rail safety.
"The more you can take the need to have a train engineer react to a signal coming to him in the train, the more you can remove that physical interface between a person and the locomotive, the safer you're going to be," he explains. "The PTC systems that are going to be installed are vital systems, so they're redundant, they're failsafe - I think it's the way the industry needs to go."
PTC differs from automatic train control systems in that it is a predictive technology, McEligott says. "It minimizes the risk of accidents and over-speed derailments occurring and protects railway workers," he says.
Today, there are two PTC systems that will be grandfathered in to meet the FRA rule. The first, Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), is used predominantly in the Northeast corridor, McEligott says. "It's what Amtrak currently uses and it's certified up to 150 miles per hour," he adds.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and Long Island Rail Road plan to install ACSES on their systems, McEligott says. "NJ Transit has a variant to that called Advanced Speed Enforcement System (ASES)."
The second type, Electronic Train Management System (ETMS), is used mostly by freight carriers in the western part of the country, such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), and is regulated for speeds up to 70 miles per hour, McEligott says.
"The commuter rail agencies that operate along freight tracks are going to have to develop some sort of system that can communicate to the freight system that's already installed," McEligott says. "That's where the industry is now, defining what the interoperability issue is, making it so that trains of one system can travel on track where another system is installed and everyone can still communicate and provide the level of safety that is required by the regulation."
The cost of acquiring and installing PTC poses quite a challenge to rail systems. "The costs that we've seen are anything from $50,000 per track mile for one of the basic systems that's already in place, to up to $140,000 per track mile for a newly developed system," McEligott says. On top of that, it costs about $45,000 to equip each locomotive, he adds. In some cases, he says, the cost of the equipment is actually more than the cost of the locomotive itself.
The FRA has made $50 million per year through 2013 available to freight and passenger railroads for PTC systems. "But, that doesn't go very far at all when you look at the size of the overall program," McEligott says. Thus, rail agencies will in most cases have to come up with their own funding mechanisms.
An additional pressure is the challenge of hiring personnel to install the PTC systems. "SEPTA, for instance, I think they figured out that if they installed the PTC equipment on four locomotives per day that they might have it ready by 2015. They just don't have the shop capacity or the manpower to be able to do the installation," McEligott says. However, the need for additional staff levels is a short-term concern, as regular operations staff can maintain and operate the PTC systems in conjunction with their normal duties.
"I believe since Amtrak installed ACSES along their corridor, they haven't needed to retain additional employees over and above what they had when they were during the installation process," McEligott says.