The derailment of Amtrak #188 opened an intense national public dialogue on rail safety and Positive Train Control (PTC): What is PTC? Would it have prevented the Amtrak accident? What are rail systems doing to make their networks safe? Will the December 31, 2015 deadline be met?
While PTC may have just recently entered the consciousness of the public at-large, it has been an issue for freight and commuter rail systems since Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) (P.L. 110-432) in 2008 following the collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in Los Angeles. Since that time, rail organizations have been working toward meeting the federally-mandated PTC implementation deadline of December 31, 2015. With less than six months to go, several commuter rail systems have said that, not only will they not meet the deadline, they will need several more years before having full PTC implementation on their trains.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is working hard to meet the PTC mandate. “The safety enhancements offered by PTC are critically important for the safe operation of SEPTA’s Regional [commuter] Rail system,” said SEPTA General Manager Joseph M. Casey. “Barring any unforeseen technical challenges or concerns that arise during testing, we will be in full compliance by the deadline. It will be a photo finish, but we will make it.”
When completed, SEPTA will have made a capital investment of $328 million and committed years of intense work to upgrade signals, communication systems and vehicles to implement a viable and reliable PTC system across its 230-mile Regional Rail network.
The Authority shares almost 81 miles of track with four freight lines. Three of SEPTA’s 13 Regional Rail lines operate on Amtrak-owned track. Because a significant portion of SEPTA’s commuter rail system operates in Amtrak territory, the Authority is installing Amtrak’s PTC technology – Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES). Adopting ACSES, however, presented SEPTA with an additional challenge on its West Trenton Line, which uses CSX track. CSX is installing IETMS, an entirely different PTC technology that is not compatible with ACSES. To resolve this major impediment, SEPTA and CSX agreed to physically separate their operations — SEPTA is constructing its own track through CSX territory on the West Trenton Line. This additional PTC-related project costs $28 million and is partially funded with $10 million in federal TIGER Grant funding. Construction is expected to be completed by mid-August 2015.
To meet the December 31, 2015 PTC deadline, SEPTA doubled its ongoing interlocking modernization and Automatic Train Control (ATC) installation efforts immediately following the passage of RSIA. Using in-house forces to install ATC gave SEPTA the flexibility to simultaneously engage third-party design and construction contractors for ACSES installation. This concurrent approach to PTC implementation was not only cost-effective, it allowed SEPTA to successfully meet key PTC benchmarks while completing ATC installation in accordance with its PTC implementation plan.
Work continues on the installation of ATC/PTC throughout the SEPTA Regional Rail network and training of roadway workers, train and engine crews, vehicle mechanics, signal maintainers and dispatchers is in progress. SEPTA started modifying and testing its 359-vehicle fleet in April, beginning with its 40-year old Silverliner IV rail cars, which comprises the majority of SEPTA’s fleet. The retrofit and testing process, which has been slower in the older trains, is scheduled to be completed by November.
To help lawmakers understand the work put into meeting the PTC deadline, SEPTA hosted members of Pennsylvania’s federal delegation at the Authority’s suburban Philadelphia PTC testing facility. U.S. Senator Robert Casey Jr. and U.S. Representatives Chaka Fattah, Pat Meehan and Ryan Costello were given an up close view of on-board and track-side PTC communication equipment and experienced the technology in action as they traveled along a working test track.
“There’s nothing like seeing this up close,” said Sen. Casey. “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.”
Amtrak and Metrolink join SEPTA in meeting the challenge of implementing PTC and have indicated that they too are planning to meet the deadline.
Heather Redfern is the Public Information Manager for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
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