PTC: It’s the deadline, stupid

Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Written by  Frank N. Wilner, Contributing Editor
Syntax-challenged George W. Bush was bang-on correct in saying, “You got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in.” So it is with Positive Train Control (PTC)—a $14 billion safety overlay utilizing computers, transponders and GPS to stop or slow a train automatically before certain types of accidents occur.
But despite a congressionally imposed PTC implementation deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, for 70,000 miles of track carrying toxic-by-inhalation (TIH) hazmat as well as all commuter and passenger trains, lawmakers have not grasped the complexity of the task. The deadline was set arbitrarily in 2008 by stunned lawmakers following a horrific commuter train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., that claimed 25 lives.
While railroads already have invested some $6 billion in PTC research, development and partial implementation, their efforts have been encumbered by technological uncertainties in the design, testing and employee training process. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission was slow in approving installation of required antennas on federally protected lands.
Thus, only about 50% of freight railroad locomotives and specified track will be PTC-equipped by Dec. 31. For commuter railroads, most of which travel on freight rail right-of-way, fewer than 30% will have access to PTC-equipped track by Dec. 31. While Amtrak says it will meet the PTC deadline on its Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston, it hasn’t encountered the difficulties of freight railroads. FCC siting authority was not required, Amtrak does not interchange through-train locomotives with other railroads where PTC hardware and software must be compatible, and Northeast Corridor track-miles are relatively few. Still, there are some 50 miles of state-owned track on the NEC where PTC installation may be delayed. Elsewhere, Amtrak mostly leases access from freight railroads.
PTC delay is traceable primarily to technological hurdles, not railroad indifference; yet the Federal Railroad Administration says it will impose steep fines against railroads if the Dec. 31 implementation deadline is not met.
Imagine if Congress imposed on pharmaceutical companies an arbitrary deadline to produce a cancer-curing drug, and the Food and Drug Administration threatened to fine Big Pharma if it failed to meet the deadline? Indeed, PTC technology is “not something you go to Radio Shack and say, ‘Well, I’ll take a PTC system,’” said former National Transportation Safety Board Managing Director Peter Goelz. “It’s not a plug-and-go system.”
Over and over and over again, railroads have stressed—fervently hoping the truth would sink in—that any deadline should respect the confines of engineering science and acknowledge the adverse impact of the FCC’s antenna-pole-siting delay. Railroads beseeched Congress for remedial legislation to extend the Dec. 31 deadline, or grant the FRA authority to authorize alternative existing safety technologies.
Imposing a maximum $25,000 per-day fine per railroad for noncompliance with an arbitrary deadline wrongly diverts scarce dollars from infrastructure maintenance, renewal and expansion. More likely, railroads would embargo all shipments of TIH hazmat and refuse track access to Amtrak and commuter railroads. Allowing such operations over noncompliant track would expose all parties to unimaginable jury awards were the unthinkable to occur. Congress was warned by shippers that such embargoes would kindle severe national economic harm.
Actually, railroads once advocated an early version of PTC, known as Advanced Train Control Systems (ATCS); and Burlington Northern (BN), prior to its merger with the Santa Fe, was field testing its Advanced Railroad Electronics System (ARES). Although railroads envisioned significant business benefits from ATCS and ARES—BN calculated the benefit-cost ratio of ARES as a positive 3-to-1 by including extensive business benefits— the projects were scrapped as railroads instead pursued a chain of mergers.
Railroads say the cost of the more-complex PTC exceeds safety benefits by 11-fold. A changed architecture, requiring replacement of wayside signals and retention of fixed-block train spacing—rather than the less expensive moving-block technology used by ARES—eradicated business benefits for PTC. Compounding the technological hurdles fueling delay is the $14 billion price tag—an unfunded federal mandate occurring as the Surface Transportation Board, encouraged by many in Congress, entertains shipper petitions to place new caps on railroad freight rates.
The villain in this illogical collision of fact and ignorance is a dysfunctional Congress and its reprehensible failure to come together with focus, resolve and deed. The House showed no initiative to act on PTC, while the Senate slid PTC extension legislation into a notoriously controversial highway funding bill to which the House said, “no thanks.”
Fans of comedians Abbott and Costello might wonder how their “Who’s on First?” baseball team’s shortstop, “I Don’t Give a Damn,” was traded to Congress. Hey, Congress: “It’s the deadline, stupid.”