Amtrak OIG: Ensure PTC Reliability

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
Amtrak's PTC systems are expected to be interoperable with its host and tenant railroads by year’s end, but the Amtrak OIG says Amtrak can take steps to better ensure its systems are reliable.

Amtrak's PTC systems are expected to be interoperable with its host and tenant railroads by year’s end, but the Amtrak OIG says Amtrak can take steps to better ensure its systems are reliable.

The Amtrak Office of Inspector General (OIG) has recommended in a new report that Amtrak should “better measure” PTC (Positive Train Control) system reliability. It also noted that Amtrak faces two risks that may diminish the safety benefits of PTC.

OIG assessed the operations of Amtrak’s systems—for which implementation was completed in August—and their interoperability with Amtrak’s host and tenant railroads, including New Jersey Transit. Interoperability is expected by the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline.

The OIG report found that Amtrak cannot fully measure PTC reliability because “it does not have the electronic tools to easily access the data necessary for it and the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] to monitor system performance.” Instead, Amtrak must manually compile it, a process the OIG found to be “inefficient and error prone.” For example, OIG auditors identified at least twice as many reliability incidents in a month than Amtrak officials identified after reviewing the same source of information.

As a result, “reports on PTC reliability are incomplete and Amtrak cannot easily identify potential problems it may need to address promptly or longer-term.”

While Amtrak program officials have acknowledged the need for electronic tools, they told OIG “they have not fully researched available options because they have been focused on meeting the implementation deadline. They also cited funding constraints because of the pandemic.” Without these tools to effectively track system performance, the report noted, “Amtrak may not realize the full benefits of its investments in PTC.”

Amtrak has “invested hundreds of millions of dollars” in PTC, including about $370 million from fiscal years 2008 through 2020, according to the report. (Amtrak has three PTC systems: the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System on the Northeast Corridor and connecting corridors it owns; Incremental Train Control System in Michigan; and Interoperable Electronic Train Management System onboard locomotives that operate on the freight railroad national network, where it is a tenant.)

The report also found that Amtrak faces two risks that may diminish PTC’s safety benefits. They are:

1. “The [PTC] systems sometimes do not initialize prior to departure, or they disengage en route.” When such incidents occur, program officials told OIG, “trains must still abide by traditional measures to ensure safe operations, such as obeying signaling systems and rules that guide engineers.” OIG noted that Amtrak “has not consistently implemented the more stringent practices FRA will begin enforcing in January 2022 to mitigate risks when such incidents occur. These practices include not departing if the system did not initialize or requiring slower speeds.”

For example, “when Amtrak’s newest PTC system, the Interoperable Electronic Train Management System, does not initialize prior to a train’s departure, Amtrak permits dispatchers to decide if the train can still depart if addressing the failure will cause more than a 10-minute delay.” Amtrak officials told the OIG “they agreed that a more detailed assessment could help identify whether additional actions are needed in the interim and said a review was underway to assess the company’s processes when PTC does not operate as intended.”

2. “The systems require accurate data on when to enforce temporary speed restrictions or prohibit trains from entering work zone locations, but dispatchers must manually enter these data into the systems. [Amtrak] takes steps to help ensure that the data dispatchers enter are accurate, but there is still a risk of human error.” According to OIG, “Amtrak officials said they intend to assess the level of risk this situation poses and if it warrants mitigation.”

What are the next steps? OIG has recommended that Amtrak:

Research electronic tool options to “access data needed to monitor PTC performance and submit what it selects for funding consideration.” Amtrak management has agreed and the target completion date is June 30, 2021, according to the report.

 “Determine if additional mitigations should be implemented when PTC does not operate as intended.” Management has agreed; completion is expected by Feb. 15, 2021.

“Initiate its plan to assess the risk of incorrect data entry related to PTC.” Again, management agreed and targets the end of the year for completion.


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