Diane Burko, “USA COVID” (2020)

Building a Better Railroad

Carl E. Nash’s article, “A Better Approach to Railroad Safety and Operation” (Issues, Fall 2020), reflects an incomplete understanding of positive train control (PTC) technology, leading to misstatements about the PTC systems that have been put in place. Importantly, Nash’s assertion that full implementation of PTC is in doubt is simply false. The railroad industry met Congress’s December 31, 2020, deadline for implementing PTC systems as mandated by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

The act requires that PTC systems must be able to safely bring a train to a stop before certain human-error-caused incidents can occur. Recognizing that trains often operate across multiple railroads, the law requires that each railroad’s PTC system be fully interoperable with other railroad systems across which a train might travel.

Nash believes the reason PTC was not completed earlier was money. The nation’s largest railroads have invested about $11 billion in private capital to develop this first-of-its-kind technology. Money was not the reason PTC was not completed earlier. PTC had to be designed from scratch to be a failsafe technology capable of operating seamlessly and reliably. This task was unprecedented. It took as long as it did to implement PTC because of the complexity of delivering on the promise of PTC’s safety benefits.

Nash falsely equates rail operations to highways, and implies that a system similar to Waze or Google Maps can work on rail operations. The two modes are not the same, and the level of precision necessary for a fully functioning PTC system is far more exacting than what helps you find the fastest route home.

PTC had to be designed from scratch to be a failsafe technology capable of operating seamlessly and reliably. This task was unprecedented.

Contrary to what Nash would have you believe, the predominant PTC system used by freight railroads and passenger railroads outside the Northeast Corridor does use GPS. Also contrary to what he stated, locomotives that travel across the nation are equipped with nationwide maps of PTC routes. The transponder system that Nash referred to is a legacy system limited to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and some commuter railroads operating in the Northeast, and it is used because the transponders were already in place.

Nash asserts that each railroad has its own PTC system. In fact, the freight railroads have collaborated on PTC, with the Association of American Railroads adopting PTC standards to ensure that there is no incompatibility as locomotives move across the railroad network.

Railroads are proud of their work to make PTC a reality and know that it will make this already safe industry even safer. What Nash does get right, though, is that PTC systems must be dynamic. They will continue to require maintenance and evolve to fulfill additional needs. Meeting the congressional deadline was not the end for PTC; it marked the beginning of a new, disciplined phase that promises to further enhance operations and improve efficiency. Armed with PTC and other cutting-edge technologies, the rail industry is poised to operate safely, efficiently delivering for us all.

Senior Vice President-Safety and Operations

Association of American Railroads

On September 12, 2008, a Union Pacific Railroad freight train and a Metrolink commuter train collided in Chatsworth, California, resulting in 135 injuries and 25 fatalities. In response, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which mandated that each Class I railroad (comprising the nation’s largest railroads) and each entity providing regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation must implement a positive train control (PTC) system certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Each railroad was to install a PTC system on: (1) its main line over which 5 million or more gross tons of annual traffic and poison- or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials are transported; (2) its main line over which intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation is regularly provided; and (3) any other tracks the secretary of transportation prescribes by regulation or order.

On January 15, 2010, FRA issued regulations that require PTC systems to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zones, and movements of trains through switches left in the wrong position, in accordance with prescribed technical specifications. The statutory mandate and FRA’s implementing regulations also require a PTC system to be interoperable, meaning the locomotives of any host railroad and tenant railroad operating on the same main line will communicate with and respond to the PTC system, including uninterrupted movements over property boundaries.

FRA has worked with all stakeholders, including host and tenant railroads, railroad associations, and PTC system vendors and suppliers, to help ensure railroads fully implement PTC systems on the required main lines as quickly and safely as possible. Since 2008, the Department of Transportation has awarded $3.4 billion in grant funding and loan financing to support railroads’ implementation of PTC systems.

Currently, 41 railroads are subject to the statutory mandate, including seven Class I railroads, Amtrak, 28 commuter railroads, and 5 other freight railroads that host regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger service. Congress set a deadline of December 31, 2020, by which an FRA-certified and interoperable PTC system must govern operations on all main lines subject to the statutory mandate.

As of December 29, 2020, PTC systems govern operations on all 57,536 route miles subject to the statutory mandate. In addition, as required, FRA has certified that each host railroad’s PTC system complies with the technical requirements for PTC systems. Furthermore, railroads have reported that interoperability has been achieved between each applicable host and tenant railroad that operates on PTC-governed main lines. The Federal Railroad Administration congratulates the railroads, particularly their frontline workers, as well as PTC system suppliers/vendors and industry associations, on this transformative accomplishment.

Director, Office of Railroad Systems and Technology

Federal Railroad Administration

Cite this Article

“Building a Better Railroad.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 2 (Winter 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Winter 2021