Security and Safety

Metra unveils new line schedule allowing for PTC operation

Posted on January 10, 2019

Metra is responsible for creating the back-office system for positive train control and installing the equipment on board all Metra trains and along the tracks of the five routes it control. Photo: Metra
Metra is responsible for creating the back-office system for positive train control and installing the equipment on board all Metra trains and along the tracks of the five routes it control. Photo: Metra

Metra unveiled a new Rock Island Line schedule that includes changes necessary for the new positive train control (PTC) safety system, as well as some service enhancements such as new express trains. The new schedule will start on a trial basis on Jan. 28.

In crafting the new schedule, Metra considered the comments of more than 800 people who emailed the agency about the initial proposed schedule and made adjustments where possible.

The pilot schedule will go into effect on Jan. 28 and operations and ridership patterns will be evaluated over the next few months.

Under PTC, the crew of a train must initialize the system before each individual run. This includes entering information about the size and makeup of the train (because its weight affects its stopping distance) and any other details about conditions along the route (such as work zones or speed restrictions) that could affect the safe operation of the train. The initialization process is expected to take about six minutes.

To handle as many passengers as it does during the morning rush period, Metra must quickly turn trains around at downtown stations and send them back out to make more inbound trips. The same applies to the evening rush period, as trains complete their trips to the suburbs and turn back to pick up more customers downtown. Metra calls this process “flipping” a train, and it will take longer because of PTC.

To flip a train, the engineer must move from the cab car to the locomotive or vice versa, and the crew must clear the train, perform a brake test and conduct a job briefing. With the added task of initializing the PTC system, these “flips” are expected to take more than 10 minutes, so the schedule of about a dozen trains were adjusted, and those changes, in turn, affected other trains on the schedule.

One of the key features of PTC — and one of its biggest challenges — is that PTC systems must be interoperable between railroads. This means that Metra’s onboard equipment must be able to seamlessly communicate not only with Metra’s trackside and back-office components, but with the freight railroads’ trackside and back-office components, and vice versa.

Metra is responsible for creating the back-office system and installing the equipment on board all Metra trains and along the tracks of the five routes it controls (Metra Electric, Rock Island, SouthWest Service and the Milwaukee District West and North). The freight companies that own the other six lines — BNSF Railway (the BNSF Line), Union Pacific Railroad (the three UP lines) and CN Railroad (Heritage Corridor and North Central Service) — are responsible for the trackside equipment and back offices for those routes.

PTC is already fully operational on the BNSF Line, and UP has begun implementation on its three lines. PTC will start on other Metra lines in 2019 and 2020. Similar schedule changes will be needed on other lines with tight flips as PTC is implemented.

PTC is a federally mandated safety system that will automatically stop a train if the engineer fails to obey a signal or exceeds the speed limit.

The system integrates GPS, trackside sensors and communications units, onboard computers and Metra’s centralized train dispatching system. Together, these components track trains and monitor the crew’s compliance with speed restrictions and signals.

Although it can’t prevent all accidents, PTC increases safety by preventing train-to-train collisions, unauthorized entry by trains into work zones and derailments due to speeding or moving through misaligned track switches.

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