PTC’s 50th Anniversary? Give Me a Break, NTSB

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor
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Aug. 20, 2019, Union Station, New Haven, Conn.: NTSB Member Jennifer Homendy with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) at a press event to mark the 50th anniversary of a fatal train collision in Darien, Conn., and calling for Positive Train Control to be fully implemented—which is exactly what the railroads are doing! Another pointless political stunt, along the lines of NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt’s disingenuous comments to CBS 60 Minutes earlier this year. You want the real story? Talk to Federal Railroad Administrator Ron Batory. (NTSB photo by Peter Knudson)

We’re celebrating a whole lot this year. We’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, recognizing the right of women to vote. I know a few of us are celebrating the 155th anniversary of Sherman’s March to the Sea, breaking the back of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion.

We should be celebrating, in every school in the country, the 65th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, but we aren’t, maybe because the current Secretary of Education thinks Brown vs. Board of Education is an exhibition basketball game organized by the PTA as a fundraiser.

Hollywood wanted to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Alien, but didn’t know what to do. Given the damage already done by the prequels and sequels to the original, we should consider ourselves lucky.

But it’s the 50-year anniversaries that get the juices flowing, kind of a not-quite-last gasp from my baby-boomer generation. We celebrate our youth, which we think we remember. We’re celebrating 50 years of Stonewall. We’re celebrating 50 years of the Apollo 11 mission, real walking on a real moon. We’re celebrating 50 years of Woodstock, peace and love and helicopters. Probably won’t be much of a celebration for Altamont, though. It doesn’t quite lend itself to the “good vibes” narrative.  

And the NTSB is proclaiming that this year is the 50th anniversary of its initial recommendation for the installation of Positive Train Control.* Impressive, right? Way back in 1969, NTSB, as a result of investigating a head-on collision in Darien, Conn., advocated a system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, overspeed operation, movement through an improperly lined switch, and movement into an established work zone, right?

Wrong, because the NTSB did no such thing. What did it recommend? To quote, from NTSB’s Safety Recommendation R-70-020:

“The NTSB recommends that the Federal Railroad Administration, if it receives additional statutory authority under legislation now in progress, study the feasibility of requiring a form of automatic train control at points where passenger trains are required to meet other trains.”

Does any of that sound like a system of Positive Train Control that is required to predict and prevent all stop signal violations; predict and prevent any train from operating beyond the limits of its movement authority; predict and prevent all overspeed violations; predict and prevent operation through an improperly lined switch; predict and prevent movement into an established work zone? It doesn’t sound like that to me, but my hearing has deteriorated a bit on this the 50th anniversary of my 21st birthday (and the 36th anniversary of a case of industrial strength tinnitus).

Back in the day, the day being 1969, the Penn Central’s New Canaan branch was “dark” (non-signaled) territory. Trains were operated according to manual block system rules. Movement authorities were defined by timetable schedule except when altered by general order, bulletin order, or … train order. Just such an alteration of authority was addressed, delivered to, and required of train N-48 by train order. The locomotive engineer of N-48 ignored the order and proceeded head-on into an opposing train, N-49. The NTSB advocated a study to determine the feasibility of installing a form of automatic train control in dark territory, without recognizing that the vital component of all train control systems is determination of occupancy. 

NTSB did not recommend the application of track circuits—existing technology proven to register train occupancy It did not recommend the installation of automatic block signaling for train movements in both directions. It did not recommend the installation of power-operated switches, remotely controlled from a central office or satellite offices. It did not recommend overlaying upon these established technologies the also-established technology of automatic speed control. 

Without a method for detecting occupancy in the field, the recommendation for a feasibility study for a form of automatic train control would go nowhere. And nowhere it went. According to NTSB, FRA responded:

“A research program was undertaken and conducted by the transportation system center. The results indicate that the best system would appear to be a hybrid, composed of both present and proposed levels of mechanical control. However, because of its costs and necessary extensive installation, it does not appear possible at this time.”

NTSB then marked the recommendation as “closed.” And the FRA’s decision to not pursue the recommendation any further was “acceptable action.” Not quite the action you would expect from a trailblazer, is it? 

Fortunately, the railroad, and its successor railroad Metro-North, paid no attention to NTSB’s “recommendation,” but went ahead and installed centralized traffic control supplemented by cab signal/automatic speed control on the New Canaan branch.

Now, I’m all for credit where credit is due. I think those people who actually developed the logic of PTC and the technology to communicate, translate, execute that logic—to apply the predictive and preventive features of PTC to rail operations and who accomplished that by finding a way to identify occupancy in dark territory—deserve all the credit in the world.

I also think those who didn’t recommend PTC 50 years ago, but instead installed automatic block signal systems and speed control, deserve a lot of credit.

And by the way, from the NTSB press release: “In the past half century, the NTSB has investigated more than 150 PTC-preventable accidents that have taken nearly 300 lives and injured about 6,700  others.” Right, past half century. But since GPS wasn’t completed and readily available for civilian applications until the 1990s , how about we quit pretending that something that did not exist could have prevented things that really happened?

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.”

*Editor’s Comments: NTSB’s press release, “NTSB to Railroads: Finish the Job Implementing Positive Train Control,” and press conference featuring Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.-Conn) was yet another pointless political stunt. Read it if you must, but be aware that The-Pope-is-a-Catholic statements like “The NTSB’s message is simple: no more extensions, no more excuses, and no more delays. Finish the job,” are utterly ridiculous and a complete waste of time. And by the way, NTSB’s headline emulates my style of headline writing. Should I be flattered? Nope! – William C. Vantuono

Categories: C&S, PTC, Regulatory, Safety Tags: , , , ,