Monday, May 04, 2009

PTC: An FRA perspective

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The railroad industry, carriers and suppliers alike, is facing a daunting task to meet the U.S. government’s mandate for deploying Positive Train Control on all lines with passenger trains or TIH (toxic inhalation hazard) traffic. The industry, through the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) and other groups, is working closely with the Federal Railroad Administration on PTC implementation and a new rulemaking, Part 236 Subpart I, which will govern PTC. FRA Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety Grady Cothen (pictured) gave the FRA’s outlook during a May 4, 2009 luncheon speech at the Railway Age/Parsons International Conference on Communications-Based Train Control. His remarks follow:

gradycothen.jpg Two interesting things happened on the way to PTC deployment, and they are necessary background. First, the Congress decided to throw fuel on the long-raging battle between the railroads, symbolized by the AAR, and the TIH shippers. They did this by using the presence of TIH traffic as the criterion for installing PTC in the absence of passenger trains. Why they would do that at the last minute—given that neither House had called out the 0.3% of rail traffic that is deemed to be poison inhalation hazard under the DOT regulations as a criterion for PTC implementation—is something I have not been able to nail down. We understand that TIH is a “bet the company” issue for the CEOs, but we are less clear how that became the sine qua non of PTC.

Second, the ink on President Bush’s signature for the rail bill, which itself signaled a big shot in the arm for passenger rail, was barely dry when President Obama decided that high speed rail would be a signature issue for economic recovery and investment in America’s future. In a Washington instant, there was $8 billion where before there was none; and more was promised in the President’s budgets for 2010 and beyond. So now, the remnant of FRA folks who thought we would get high speed rail in our prime are scrambling to make it happen now, in the middle of a freight rail network where half of the big four don’t want to do vital onboard processing, notwithstanding Amtrak’s earnest and likely farsighted appeal.

Already you think you know what FRA is going to do. But you probably don’t. I’m not sure I do, and the proposed rule is starting an expedited clearance process this week, at least in bits and pieces.     So where are we, how are we going to get to where we are going; and, by the way, where do we really want to go?

Where are we? First of all, it’s not where we wanted to be. Attendees at these conferences to this point have either been either gluttons for punishment, given the number that have heretofore been held, or possessed of a real vision regarding what communication-based train control could do for the railroad industry and the nation. Many of us hoped that technology development would be progressed to conclusion in a reasonable time and that initial investments would be followed by extensive deployment of CBTC, yielding significant improvements in safety as a natural byproduct to be enjoyed by all.

But here we are, and thus far the congressional mandate for PTC has heightened cooperation among the major freight railroads, opened brand new dialogues among the passenger railroads and their partners in joint operations, and led to very constructive conversations in the RSAC that have clarified a host of issues and have given FRA a foundation on which to build implementing regulations. Just last week, FRA circulated the proposed rule text as reported by the PTC working group to the full RSAC for concurrence.

Meanwhile we have been working very long hours to finalize the proposed rule, and our colleagues at the Office of the Secretary and the Office of Management and Budget are apparently game to do an expedited and concurrent review. We want to get the proposal out, do a quick comment period, and call the RSAC working group back together to refine the product in areas where further light might be shed or additional agreements might be reached. Without question, differences may remain, but not so many we can’t move forward.

How are we going to get there? A final rule is due by October; PTC Implementation Plans and Development Plans by April 16, 2010, with FRA action of some kind within 90 days thereafter. We are adding some staff and also expect to have some short term contract assistance providing access to additional engineering talent. Full PTC Safety Plans will follow. Finish the job by Dec. 31, 2015: That’s the official line, and I for one am sticking to it.

Already there are those who are “adjusting expectations” and familiarizing the Washington power centers with the enormous difficulties ahead. Indeed, according to some, the impossibility of it all. For those folks, I’ve got some advice based on over four decades in this town: Cool it, go home, do your best to get the job done, and let the rest take care of itself. FRA has been and will be at your side as this process unfolds. If there are genuine problems, we will vouch for you. If we think you are avoiding decisions to generate excuses, you are toast. Never in recent memory has it been so important that industry and government work together to get the job done, and that’s how we need to get there.

Where do we really want to go? Here I have to tell you that I’m speaking for myself and not the Administration. First, I think we need to go to a place that’s within our reach. The temptation will be to go for the ultimate version of the hardware and software, and that will mean it doesn’t get done on time.

Second, we need to go to a place where railroads use this stuff to do things beyond avoiding disaster. Yes, I know this tends to contradict which I just said, but the point is this: Don’t forget that this needs to be an integral part of the business plan. TCS (Advanced Train Control System) was supposed to be the heart of a new electronic railroad that would transform service quality and asset utilization. In many ways, that’s still possible, and we can add fuel conservation and environmental attainment to the list. Now add ECP brakes and you’re looking at gains in capacity, as well. Plus, railroads that are technology leaders command more respect when it comes to public-private partnerships.

We won’t ever get to that place if we cry in our beer that traffic is down and cash flows are weak, and, gosh, we can’t conceive putting PTC anyplace it isn’t absolutely required. If I had a nickel for every time learned representatives of the Class I railroads lectured me that “you don’t apply PTC to corridors, you apply it to the network,” I’d already be retired. Well, guess what? They were right. Can we get it done all at once? Obviously not. Is there an opportunity to get a head start on this thing if the message sets and radio protocols can be delivered real quickly? Yes, there should be.

Even if you haven’t seen the pictures of all those locomotives in storage, you have probably seen the locomotives in storage. Traffic is slack. Relatively speaking, track time is available. We know traffic will come back, at least a lot of it. So let’s get ahead of the curve. Yes, it’s easy for me to say this, since I don’t have to come up with the capital. But, if all else fails, FRA is sitting on the better part of $35 billion in RRIF (Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing) authority; and repayment need not begin for five years. Only $7 billion is reserved for other than Class I railroads, so there’s some room to work here.

Up to this point, it was important for major railroads to show interest in PTC and stay poised to act, should lightening strike a board room or should a terrible accident occur that might prompt congressional action. Now is the time to deliver. For our part, FRA is determined not to provide any excuses why it can’t be done. More important, creative and energetic railroaders and their suppliers are poised to make it happen; and many are in this room today.

Tomorrow Joseph Szabo of Illinois takes the oath of office as Federal Railroad Administrator. Joe likes to talk about the Rail Renaissance, and just before the recent economic downturn the vision of such a future was palpable. Our economy after the recovery will be different than before, I’m sure, but all bets say that America will still need railroads. Let’s make them proud railroads, unafraid of the future; dedicated to safety and profitability; building markets and serving communities; conserving resources and protecting the environment; and keeping promises and looking to an even greater future.