In mid-June, Southern Calif.’s Metrolink launched PTC in a Revenue Service Demonstration across the entire 341-mile network the agency owns.
There are currently 23 commuter railroads operating in the U.S. and only 29% of them are targeting to complete installation of positive train control technology (PTC) by the federally mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Full implementation of PTC for all commuter lines is projected by 2020.
PTC technology is designed to automatically stop or slow a train before accidents caused by human error occur, including train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed and unauthorized incursions.
While the status of PTC implementation across the industry is bleak, there are some bright spots. In mid-June, Southern Calif.’s Metrolink launched PTC into Revenue Service Demonstration (with passengers on board) across the entire 341-mile network the agency owns. This accomplishment makes it the first railroad in the nation to have PTC running during regular service on all of its hosted lines and remains on track to become the nation’s first passenger rail system to have a fully operational, interoperable, and certified PTC system in place.
The current cost for developing, installing and deploying PTC on Metrolink totals $216.4 million, with funding coming from a combination of federal, state and local sources. Approximately 85% of the funds were state and local dollars.
Another passenger rail network making significant strides with its PTC project is the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). In July, members of Pennsylvania’s federal delegation (Sen. Robert Casey Jr. and Reps. Chaka Fattah, Pat Meehan and Ryan Costello) toured SEPTA’s suburban Philadelphia PTC testing facility. During the tour, the lawmakers viewed demonstrations of on-board and track-side PTC communication equipment and rode in technology-equipped railcars along a working test track.
“There’s nothing like seeing this up close,” said Sen. Casey of the tour. “I think we all have a better understanding of what positive train control means; a better sense of some of the challenges in making sure it is implemented.”
But positive stories about PTC are few and far between as many commuter rail systems struggle to overcome the numerous challenges posed by the expensive and complex undertaking.
Ongoing challenges commuter railways face include, availability of the wireless spectrum. APTA has asked Congress to direct the Federal Communications Commission to provide free radio spectrum for PTC.
“A number of transit agencies have been unsuccessful at completing negotiations with spectrum holders,” says Brian Tynan, APTA’s director, government relations.
The limited number of suppliers of PTC technology is another hurdle. Those companies with proven capability to deliver the equipment in use in the U.S., according to a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) report, include: General Electric Transportation Systems, Wabtec Railway Electronics Systems, Alstom Signaling Solutions and Siemens Rail Automation.
Another challenge is the potential for radio interference. Differing technologies used by railroads operate with different communication protocols in similar frequency bands, which can lead to desensitization, according to an FRA report.
Perhaps the greatest challenge with regard to implementation of the rail safety technology is how to pay for it. According to APTA, conservative estimates are that $3.48 billion is needed to implement PTC nationally on commuter rail. This does not include the cost of purchasing radio spectrum. So far, the industry has spent $950 million and Congress has only provided $50 million, says Tynan.
The transportation advocacy group is calling on Congress to provide 80% of PTC costs on commuter railroads.
Fifty percent of commuter rail systems say they were deferring other capital programs to implement PTC, such as bridge rehabilitation, signal upgrades, track improvements and safety projects at railroad crossings, according to APTA data. Additionally, commuter railroads argue that the “PTC mandate could have the unintended consequence of degrading system safety by requiring the deferral of needed state of good repair projects in order to pay for initial phases of PTC.”
Funding is one of the many issues Chicago’s commuter railroad Metra is contending with as it works to fulfill the PTC mandate. During his testimony before a Congressional subcommittee this summer, Metra Executive Director/CEO Donald Oreseno said implementation of the rail safety technology is expected to cost the railroad more than $350 million.
In addition to the substantial upfront capital cost of PTC implementation, he said, the operating cost is estimated to be more than $15 million annually.
“With all of these obstacles in mind, it should come as no surprise that no railroad has installed a fully functioning, interoperable PTC system to date,” Orseno says.
Meanwhile, the railroad industry awaits action on the Senate’s surface transportation bill, approved in July, which included a provision that would extend the federal deadline for railroads to install PTC to 2018.
If no extension materializes, the FRA will enforce the Dec. 31, 2015, federally mandated PTC deadline.
During a Congressional Subcommittee hearing, FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg outlined the following penalty guidelines:
“Starting Jan. 1, 2016, FRA will impose penalties on railroads that have not fully implemented PTC. Penalties may be assessed per violation, per day and may be raised or lowered depending on mitigating or aggravating factors. The total amount of penalty each railroad faces will depend upon the amount of implementation progress the railroad has made.”
These fines and civil penalties, built into the regulation, can set a commuter railroad back as much as $25,000 a day. Potential violations outlined in the regulations include a fine of $15,000 to $25,000 for failure to equip locomotives.
“Some of those fines can even be applied to individuals,” says APTA’s Tynan. “An individual safety officer, who would have to certify that the train is full safety equipped, may not want to do that if [he/she] could be subject to a $25,000 fine.”
Members of Pennsylvania’s federal delegation (Sen. Robert Casey Jr. and Reps. Chaka Fattah, Pat Meehan and Ryan Costello) were given an up close view of SEPTA’s PTC technology during a facility tour in July.
Additionally, he says there is concern about whether or not railroads can operate after the deadline. An example of a worst-case scenario come Jan. 1, would be if a freight railroad makes a determination that commuter rail service operating on the freight railroad’s tracks cannot continue, he explains. Another scenario would be that the commuter railroad itself determines that it cannot operate without having PTC fully implemented.
“Our commuter railroads are very concerned about the approaching deadline,” Tynan says. “They have been looking at the regulations and their liability insurance to see what their obligations are.”