Friday, May 14, 2010

From the Editor: The business of PTC is safety. Period

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpgThough safety is always good business in the railroad industry, the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which kicked-started the industry down the path to Positive  Train Control, was never meant to be a business proposition.

For the purposes of the 2015 deadline and the technology that the railroads and their suppliers are scrambling to develop, PTC is about safety. Period. Anyone who tries to soften the blow of the financial burden of this unfunded mandate by claiming that the railroads will reap “business benefits” from PTC is barking up the wrong logic tree.

Business benefits could come, eventually—provided the railroads move well beyond the basic overlay systems they will install over the next few years to a true moving-block system, which involves a wholesale replacement of existing signaling and train control technology.

The AAR commissioned Oliver Wyman to conduct a study, “Assessment of the Commercial Benefits of PTC.” It’s 93 pages long, but to understand what they’re talking about, just look at p. 2:

“Outside of safety benefits, two key assumptions underlie the majority of projected commercial and operational railroad benefits from PTC: that it will increase rail line capacity and network velocity. Benefits ranging from reduced capital investments in new track, to reductions in customer safety stock levels, are all tied to predictions related to these factors, which are expected to be realized through two primary means: 1) implementation of ‘precision’ or ‘optimized’ dispatching, which would greatly reduce train delays and allow more trains to move over each rail line; and 2) improved over-the-road train performance through improved train control information/signaling, supporting reduced spacing between trains, which ultimately would reduce train delays. The largest benefits calculated to date for PTC derive from the assumption that precision dispatching can be used in conjunction with PTC to achieve greater line capacity on U.S. rail routes. We found no direct relationship between precision dispatching and PTC.”

Various cost-benefit ratios are being lobbed (or lobbied) about; the worst of these is the FRA’s own 20:1 (though an AAR official has told me that “we’re looking at a ratio as high as 24:1”). At least the FRA is not trying to paint an unrealistic picture.

Here’s what the industry is saying: “No one is against improving safety—we especially. We’re not questioning that PTC can improve safety, and we’re committed to getting it done. However, only 3% of all train accidents are train control-related (i.e., PTC will not prevent accidents caused by broken rails or broken axles). We have existing, far-less-expensive technology at our disposal that will deliver essentially the same safety benefits, at a much lower cost. Much of it is already in place. PTC, which will decrease capacity and slow us down, will have to be paid for by our customers. If they’re unwilling to do that, they’ll take their business back to the highways. Care to guess what happens to safety, in terms of transportation-related casualties? You folks want PTC? Then you need to help us pay for it. Period.”

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William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.