Positive Train Control (PTC): Train Safety Bottleneck Puts Passengers at Risk

 
Category: 
Train Accidents

By David Carnes – Staff Writer

Although train accidents occur less frequently than automobile collisions, they are often far deadlier. Although Positive Train Control (PTC) technology has the potential to drastically reduce the risks of traveling by train, its full implementation has been delayed by decades, during which time passenger deaths and injuries have continued to mount. 

What is PTC?

Commercial aircraft have long relied on automatic piloting mechanisms, and self-driving cars are expected to proliferate over the next decade or so. PTC is an integrated system that seeks to minimize human error in much the same way as automatic piloting and self-driving cars do. PTC combines digital radio, global positioning satellites and trackside signaling to record and manage the speed and location of trains so as to prevent dangerous behavior such as speeding, running stop lights or running in the wrong direction.

The Congressional Mandate

The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending that railroads install PTC technology since 1969, to no avail. After a 2008 train crash in California claimed 25 lives that likely could have been saved by PTC technology, Congress finally decided to act, requiring both freight and passenger railways to fully install PTC technology by December 31, 2015. As the deadline approached with no commuter railways in full compliance, even major railroads such as Amtrak and Metrolink, Congress effectively extended the compliance deadline to 2020.   

The Obstacles

Obviously, installing PTC technology isn’t as easy as waving a magic wand. Railroad companies cite the following obstacles to full compliance with the Congressional mandate:

  • A shortage of engineers who have mastered PTC technology.
  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been slow to authorize railroads to access the radio frequencies that railroads need to implement PTC.
  • PTC technology is expensive – to the tune of $4.5 billion for commuter railways alone.
  • Federal subsidies designed to help cash-strapped railroads comply with the 2020 deadline have been unevenly distributed, leaving some railroads with no federal funding help at all.

Despite these and other obstacles, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been pushing railroad companies to fully comply with the 2020 deadline, even as railway executives grumble that Washington bureaucrats fail to understand the practical difficulties involved.   

The Road Ahead

The NTSB began recommending the installation of PCT technology on domestic railways in the late 1960s. After allowing the idea to languish for decades, in 2008 Congress finally responded with a set of burdensome compliance demands that failed to provide railroads with sufficient technical, financial and bureaucratic support to meet these demands. By 2020 the 50th anniversary of the NTSB’s original recommendation will have already passed, perhaps with yet another extension of the compliance deadline. Meanwhile the body count continues to mount – the FRA estimates over 700 railroad-related deaths in 2015 -- even as Congressional funding efforts remain anemic, with only $199 million earmarked for PTC installation in December 2015. Until Congress gets serious about revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure, nothing of substance is likely to change.

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