Congratulations, NTSB!

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor
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I chuckle sometimes these days. Chuckling, in some circles is considered to be an indication of maturity, of wisdom. Those circles don’t include me, and they don’t mean me. Chuckling is that kind of half-wry, half-sad, half-surprised, half-jaded response—and that’s two many halves.

I chuckle when I reach for my glasses to read something interesting and then—panic—can’t find the glasses. Where are they? Where did I put them? Only to find them—attached firmly to my face, temples firmly hooked behind the ears, lenses and frames exactly where I last placed them, straddling the bridge of my nose. Then I chuckle. My wife just shakes her head.

That’s the extent of my wisdom—when I’m lucky, I can find things right in front of my face.

I chuckle every time some member of the National Transportation Safety Board blogs that the NTSB has been recommending the installation of PTC on the nation’s railroads for more than 50 years. More than 50 years! That’s longer than I’ve been in the industry, isn’t it? If I’m being honest about my age, it is. Unfortunately, I don’t have many opportunities or reasons to lie about my age, what with bars closed … and the mustache having gone to bone white.

Fifty years? Really? Not really. Back in 1970, completing its investigation into the 1969 fatal collision of two trains on the then-Penn Central’s then-timetable-train-order, manual-block-governed New Canaan Branch, the then-NTSB members issued a recommendation dated Oct. 23, 1970 to FRA: “[FRA] … study the feasibility of requiring a form of automatic train control at points where passenger trains are required to meet other trains.”

OK, we could be charitable and say “pretty close,” but along with not being wise, I’m not charitable, and that recommendation 1) was made less than fifty years ago and 2) however long ago the recommendation was made, it’s not a recommendation for PTC, but for a form of automatic train control. NTSB may not have known the difference then, which is understandable given that the functions, network, and protocols for PTC were … unknown.

It’s not understandable now.

FRA answered the recommendation, providing NTSB an update in 1972 that stated: “A research program was undertaken and conducted by the transportation system center … Because of its costs and necessary extensive installation, it does not appear possible at this time.”

NTSB then marked its recommendation “Closed–Acceptable Action.” So much for the prescience of the NTSB.

Fifteen years later, however, the then-Burlington Northern initiated the design, testing and validation of an actual PTC system, doing all those things PTC has to do to be positive train control, the Advanced Railroad Electronics System (ARES). ARES, designed by Rockwell International with oversight and management for BN provided by Steve Ditmeyer, was installed and operated successfully on portions of the BN system and was slated for major rollout on the BN’s Amtrak routes: Minneapolis to Seattle, Spokane to Portland, Portland to Seattle.

And then for some reason not having to do with reliability or the safety of the system, it, ARES, was not rolled out.

But hey, that’s in the past. Happy days will be here again pretty soon, in less than 140 days, because Dec. 31, 2020 is looming, and that’s the due date for full implementation and operation of PTC on 57% of the trackage in the U.S. FRA reported on Aug. 12 something like 98.8% compliance with its schedule for PTC activation, which makes them happy, NTSB happy, and lots of customers, employees and passengers happy.

Even I’m somewhat happy. 

Sure it cost somewhat more or less than $15 billion; and sure the business benefits have been effectively offset by the preservation of the legacy train control systems, but it’s PTC. Let’s celebrate. 

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 defined PTC by its functionality, not its technology. Those functions are: 1) Prevent train-to-train collision. 2) Prevent train overspeed conditions. 3) Prevent unauthorized train movement into an established work zone. 4) Prevent train operation over an improperly lined switch. 5) Be interoperable such that a locomotive equipped to receive and comply with PTC commands on one railroad will be able to receive and comply with PTC commands on all railroads.

So, is what we have 98.8% of PTC?

My answers:

Item 1: No, the system will reduce the speed of train-to-train collision, in most circumstances to no more than 20 mph for each train. If the collision occurs at a rail-to-rail at-grade interlocking where one or more PTC routes intersects with one or more routes not required to be equipped with PTC where the maximum authorized speed is less than 40 mph (wow, say that 10 times quickly), the train on the non-PTC route can (in theory) operate at a speed of 39 mph directly into the path of the PTC equipped train. [49CFR 236.1005 (a) (1) (i)].

Item 2: Yes. [49CFR 236.1005 (a) (1)(ii)].

Item 3: Not positively. Train dispatchers may authorize the movement of trains into an established work zone. [49CFR 236.1005 (a)(1)(iii)].

Item 4: Not positively [49CFR 236.1005(e)(1)(i, ii).

Item 5: Not yet. Railroads report 65.5% interoperability of host-tenant railroad relations.

How do we explain this? While not wise, and not certain, I think railroads “choked” at the real challenge of PTC. That challenge was to make the train location technology—GPS, and the processing of GPS data—robust enough to qualify as the record of train occupancy. In short, to make the GPS data vital, or develop a system using wayside interface units (WIU) and digital radio communication to confirm the GPS data and make the hybrid train location system the record of train occupancy and vital.

In order for the system to be vital, the system recording train occupancy has to be the same system that, when functioning properly, prevents overlapping of movement authorities. The clearest example of these inseparable facets of railroad vitality is an interlocking where train movement cannot be authorized without precluding conflicting movements, the overlapping of authorities by other trains.

All vital systems register or reckon the end-of-train. Track circuits register end of train in signal territory, and allows us to designate automatic block signal indications in one or both directions as vital when we say in the rulebook: “On sections of the railroad so designated in timetable special instructions, signal indication will be the authority for train movements [in one or both directions].

And, if GPS data could identify and register both head and rear ends of trains, then the other methods of registering occupancy, like block signal systems, or crews reporting their trains clear of a section of track, would become obsolete, except at interlockings.

The challenge of PTC is to “harden” the information regarding train location such that it could become the record of occupancy. PTC would then become a means for creating movement authority and maintaining, out of its own data, a continuous safe separation of trains.

Perhaps that was a challenge too much. Perhaps railroads thought and think it easier to “degrade” PTC to another system for enforcement, where intermediate signals and fixed blocks are the critical components of the vital infrastructure. 

Maybe, it’s too much of a challenge. Maybe, but that’s where the potential and promise of PTC resides. That’s where we find the ability to prevent train-to-train collision; to preclude operation through improperly lined switches; to positively prevent incursions into work zones; to make PTC truly interoperable.

As it is now, congratulations NTSB! Go ahead and chuckle. Today, you’re getting exactly what you recommended 50 years ago: “a form of automatic train control.”

David Schanoes is Principal of Ten90 Solutions LLC, a consulting firm he established upon retiring from MTA Metro-North Railroad in 2008. David began his railroad career in 1972 with the Chicago & North Western, as a brakeman in Chicago. He came to New York in 1977, working for Conrail’s New Jersey Division. David joined Metro-North in 1985. He has spent his entire career in operations, working his way up from brakeman to conductor, block operator, dispatcher, supervisor of train operations, trainmaster, superintendent, and deputy chief of field operations. “Better railroading is 10% planning plus 90% execution,” he says. “It’s simple math. Yet, we also know, or should know, that technology is no substitute for supervision, and supervision that doesn’t utilize technology isn’t going to do the job. That’s not so simple.”

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