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In the wake of two rail accidents in Graniteville, S.C. and Los Angeles — one freight and one commuter — that resulted in a combined 34 deaths and more than 400 injuries, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, requiring passenger and major freight railroads to implement positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015. The mandate was made in part to prevent accidents caused by human factors, which was found to be the major contributor to both accidents occurring.
The U.S. Department of Transportation notes PTC has the potential to prevent the most catastrophic types of railroad accidents that result in significant loss of life and property.
PTC is a system designed to prevent accidents caused by human factors, including train-to-train collisions and derailments that result from trains exceeding safe speeds. It is also designed to prevent incursions into work zones and movement of trains through switches left in the wrong position. The technology accomplishes this by establishing a communications-based network linking trains to equipment along the track and centralized office locations to provide information to a locomotive about its authority to proceed along the track at a particular speed. If the train is going too fast or is approaching a section of track that it should not enter, the locomotive computer applies the brakes to slow or stop the train to prevent a derailment due to speeding or a possible collision.
The statute also calls for railroads to develop risk-based safety strategies that include a plan for implementing other rail safety technologies and requires railroads to implement certain technologies in areas that both lack train signaling systems and are not required to have PTC installed. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is responsible for implementing requirements of the Act.
The mandate to implement PTC has had a varied reaction. While many in the industry agree that safety is the top priority, meeting the criteria of the Act by the target date has been embraced by some and viewed as an extreme challenge by others.
The events of Sept. 12, 2008, forever changed the way Southern California’s Metrolink viewed safety and is one of the accidents mentioned that led to the mandate. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the 2008 rail accident in Chatsworth, Calif., involving a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific (UP) freight train, was caused by the Metrolink engineer’s prohibited use of a wireless device while he was operating the train. The engineer, the NTSB found, failed to respond appropriately to a red signal at Control Point Topanga because he was engaged in text messaging at the time.
The head-on collision resulted in 25 fatalities and more than 100 injuries.
As a result, Metrolink has made several changes, including updating its fleet with railcars that feature collision-absorption technology, banning the use of handheld devices by its operators and planning to implement PTC ahead of the federal mandate.
“We put together a team in fall 2008 to immediately ramp up and start putting together the program — budget, funding and schedule — as well as how to solve this thing technically,” says Darrell J. Maxey, director, PTC and communication and signal systems. “We ramped up fairly rapidly in late 2008 through 2009, and basically, caught our full stride in 2010.”
The move to implement PTC by late summer or early fall of 2013, recently received a boost when the agency received $46.3 million dollars in funds to support the installation of the new rail safety technology. The California Transportation Commission allocated $22.8 million in Proposition 1A High Speed Rail Passenger Train bonds and $10 million in Proposition 1B State and Local Partnership Program funds to advance the agency’s PTC implementation program. Additionally, the FRA awarded a $13.5 grant to Metrolink to fund a segment of the program that supports the Pacific Surfliner, located between San Onofre in Orange County and Moorpark in Ventura County.
“We had a good team here, and with management’s support and the board’s direction, we went after funding,” says Maxey. “It’s a difficult process to manage all these grants, but I don’t want to complain, we lined up the money.”
Maxey adds that Metrolink lined up approximately 34 different federal, state and local grants to help meet the $210 million budgeted cost.
In October 2010, Metrolink awarded a $120 million contract to Parsons Transportation Group to manage and integrate PTC on its 512-mile system. Two major suppliers to the Parsons contract include Wabtec, who will provide the onboard system and back office server and ARINC, the company providing a new computer-aided dispatch system and other elements.
Maxey credits Metrolink’s partnership with both freights its shares track with — Burlington Northern and UP.
“We really couldn’t have been where we are without their help and cooperation,” he says. “We’re constantly on the phone or in meetings with both [freight partners] many times a month. It really takes a lot of teamwork between all the different participants to pull this off.”
Maxey explains Metrolink’s biggest hurdle is that all the various hardware and software necessary has to be tested both in the lab and out in the field.
“The integration of all of these different systems that are required to make a PTC system work is probably the number one task,” he says. “PTC often times is called a system of systems. Developing all these different systems and linking or integrating is just a big challenge.”
He adds that another hurdle the commuter rail operator sees down the road is getting the system certified by the FRA, as part of the guidelines set in the Rail Safety Act.
“It’s going to be done incrementally, but at the end of the day, they have to certify that the system meets all the requirement of the regulation and that you are certified to go into revenue service with PTC,” says Maxey.