100% PTC: An ‘Unprecedented Undertaking’

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory

FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory

Positive Train Control (PTC) is now in operation on all 57,536 required freight and passenger railroad route-miles, ahead of the federal deadline of Dec. 31, the Federal Railroad Administration reported Dec. 29.

The 41 railroads subject to the statutory mandate—comprising all seven Class I’s, Amtrak, 28 commuter railroads, and five short lines/regionals that host intercity or commuter service—plus industry associations, suppliers and other service providers, have worked for more than a decade to reach what FRA called “a landmark achievement” and what FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said was an “unprecedented undertaking” for the nearly 100 stakeholders.

FRA has certified that each host railroad’s PTC system complies with the technical requirements. Additionally, interoperability has been achieved between host and tenant railroads operating on PTC-governed main lines.

Most railroads had reached the finish line some months ago. As of the end of third-quarter 2020 (Sept. 30), the railroad industry reached 99.6% of fully implementing PTC. At the end of 2019, PTC was in operation across 98.5% of the required Class I route miles.

Behind the Implementation

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated PTC implementation on Class I railroads’ main lines over which 5 million or more gross tons of annual traffic and certain hazardous materials are transported, and on any main lines over which intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation is regularly provided. The RSIA and FRA’s regulations also require PTC systems to be interoperable—not only on the main line where host and tenant railroads operate, but also “during uninterrupted movements over property boundaries.”

The aim is safety: To prevent train-to-train collisions; derailments caused by excessive speed; unauthorized incursions by trains into sections of track where maintenance activities are taking place; and the movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position.

The RSIA originally required full implementation by Dec. 31, 2015. Congress extended the deadline into two phases—an interim deadline of Dec. 31, 2018 for certain provisions, and a final deadline of Dec. 31, 2020, with FRA approval. Among the railroads receiving the deadline extensions were regional/commuter rail agency South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which achieved FRA certification earlier this month, and New Jersey Transit, which was the only railroad, at the end of the third quarter, that FRA deemed at risk of missing the deadline. But with less than two weeks to spare, NJT reached it on Dec. 17.

NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett took part in the recent announcement that the railroad completed all the requirements for the installation, testing and training of PTC.

FRA’s staff consulted with the railroads “to enable, facilitate and expedite” full PTC implementation, and its PTC experts provided technical assistance throughout the testing process. Before placing a PTC system in revenue service, host railroads were required to submit to FRA a PTC Safety Plan (PTCSP), as well as quarterly reports, and to receive a PTC System Certification, according to FRA. (The FRA website includes the latest reports. It also provides implementation details.)

The railroads’ investment in PTC implementation tops $15 billion. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) reported that Class I’s alone spent $11.5 billion to develop, install and implement fully interoperable PTC systems. The U.S. Department of Transportation provided some $3.4 billion in grant and loan funding to support the overall effort.

Words of Thanks

“On behalf of extraordinary professionals at FRA and myself, I congratulate the railroads, particularly their frontline workers, as well as PTC system suppliers and vendors on this transformative accomplishment,” FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said. “Furthermore, many industry associations, including the Association of American Railroads, American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, American Public Transportation Association, Commuter Rail Coalition, National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, Railway Supply Institute, and Railway Systems Suppliers Inc., have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to supporting this unprecedented undertaking.”

He continued: “PTC is a critical piece and new dimension of safety in the railroad industry, but it does not take the place of the men and women who operate and maintain freight and passenger trains. At its core, PTC is a risk reduction system that will make a safe industry even safer, and provide a solid foundation upon which additional safety improvements will be realized.”

Batory also sent letters announcing the completion of PTC to host and tenant railroads, industry associations, 11 major PTC system vendors and suppliers, and members of Congress. In them, he wrote, in part:

“Since becoming Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in February 2018, one of my highest priorities has been to help ensure that the railroad industry fully implements PTC on all required main lines by December 31, 2020, in accordance with the statutory mandate and FRA’s regulations.”

Additionally, Batory thanked the groups for their support and efforts throughout the process.

In each host and tenant railroad letter, Batory noted the railroad’s “significant accomplishment” and congratulated their teams. In letters to industry associations, he thanked them for “facilitating a significant industry-wide accomplishment.” To the suppliers, he noted their “significant role in delivering PTC system components; providing other necessary installation, testing, and/or implementation services; and enabling railroads to comply with the statutory and regulatory requirements in a safe and timely manner.”

To members of Congress, he wrote, in part:

“I would like to thank you, as well as your staff, for your support, encouragement and diligent oversight as we worked collaboratively to make PTC implementation a reality.

“The railroad industry has now implemented PTC technology on more than 57,500 route-miles throughout the country. This achievement encompasses more than a decade of sustained commitment, thousands of hours of testing and deployment and innovative technological solutions, along with a tremendous amount of coordination and collaboration among nearly 100 host and tenant railroads, railroad associations, material suppliers and service providers.”

Industry Response

AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies issued this statement:

AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies

“America’s railroads have reached an important milestone this year that will enhance safety and springboard innovation long into the future. While the industry is proud of this accomplishment, the job is never finished. Railroads will remain forward-looking and continue advancing safety through innovation and technology.”

AAR noted, too: “Beyond safety, PTC systems and their foundational components hold promise to drive further efficiencies and innovation across the nation’s rail network. Armed with detailed geomapping, advanced communications systems and upgraded locomotive hardware, railroads are working to unlock the promise of this technology to improve efficiency and drive further operational innovations. This gradual, disciplined process will be fully integrated into railroad’s ongoing efforts to enhance reliability and better serve their customers.”

The Commuter Rail Coalition released this statement:

“The Commuter Rail Coalition (CRC) welcomes today’s news that the nation’s commuter railroads have met the statutory requirements for implementing PTC. CRC applauds the nation’s publicly funded commuter railroads and their extraordinary determination in achieving this accomplishment despite myriad GAO-documented challenges to delivering the unfunded federal mandate.

“PTC holds the promise of transforming railroad operations and safety; a promise that can be fully realized through rigorous evaluation. The CRC has called for an independent assessment of the impacts of PTC and the identification of redundancies that warrant a review of mandates pre-dating PTC that may no longer enhance a railroad’s safety profile.

“Further, the CRC calls for resources to support the railroads’ PTC expenses. Estimates for ongoing PTC maintenance are estimated at approximately 5-10% of agencies’ operating budgets, an amount compounded by the cost of the continuous upgrades required to keep PTC systems state-of-the-art and interoperable with host and tenant railroads.

“The CRC thanks the FRA, under the leadership of Ron Batory, for the support and interventions that made it possible to reach this milestone.”

American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas released this statement:

“Riding commuter rail is 18 times safer than driving an auto, and this monumental achievement of PTC certification will make commuter rail service even safer. Our commuter rail operators have devoted tremendous time and resources to ensuring the safety of riders through PTC implementation. I want to thank the Federal Railroad Administration, in particular Administrator Ronald Batory, for the leadership and guidance provided to the commuter rail industry through the implementation process.

APTA President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas

“Twenty-nine commuter rail operators worked tirelessly to meet the December 31, 2020 deadline set by Congress. Industry-wide implementation of PTC has been a massive undertaking, achieved only through dedication and innovation by these operators along with PTC equipment providers, consultants, and the FRA. Technological systems needed to be developed, customized, and installed to meet the unique operating requirements of each and every rail operator while ensuring that the PTC system was interoperable with other passenger and freight operators that share the tracks with commuter rail operators. Commuter rail operators have invested more than $4 billion dollars to implement PTC and will spend hundreds of millions each year in maintenance and operation costs.”

APTA also released statements from two of its Commuter Rail Committee Chairs:

• “The successful implementation of PTC by all 29 commuter rail agencies is a remarkable achievement, given the funding, technological and human resources challenges associated with PTC implementation, operations and maintenance,” said North County Transit District CEO and Chair of the APTA Commuter Rail CEO Committee Matthew Tucker. “The industry would not have been successful without the tremendous dedication and efforts by our employees who worked tirelessly to learn, implement and trouble-shoot this new technology. On behalf of all commuter rail CEOs, many thanks to our employees for their efforts in achieving this success.”

• “Now that the federal mandate has been met, commuter rail agencies will be focused on PTC system maintenance, reliability, and in the future, gaining operational efficiencies based on additional PTC technological advancements,” said Metra CEO, APTA Commuter Rail CEO Committee Vice-Chair and Commuter Rail Coalition Chair Jim Derwinski.


CN reported Dec. 30 that it successfully completed the federally required interoperability testing with tenant railroads—which include the Class I’s, Amtrak, Metra and short lines—so they can operate PTC on CN’s 35 subdivisions equipped with PTC in the U.S. It also reported that FRA has approved and certified its PTC system.

“Safety is a core value at CN and we are proud of what our CN railroaders have achieved, securing certification from the FRA of CN’s PTC system and completing the interoperability testing by working with our tenant railroads. We look forward to using this investment in PTC as a platform for future technology initiatives to enhance the safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate,” Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer Rob Reilly said in a statement.

Editor’s Commentary: The Federal Railroad Administration, under Ron Batory’s leadership and guidance as Administrator, has been one of the rare bright spots in a highly dysfunctional Trump Administration and a deeply divided federal government. It is my hope that the FRA and its career employees continue on the path of progress and innovation that Batory made possible. — William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

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