Positive Train Control (PTC) is a GPS system that works together with radar and track sensors that allow computers to remotely control a train if an operator isn’t handling the locomotive correctly. The main concept behind positive train control is to avoid collisions and prevent speed derailments caused by human error.
How Does Positive Train Control Work?
Human error has been a major cause in many of the worst train accidents. PTC technology, however, will prevent many types of human error from causing accidents.
The PTC network consists of communication from three different devices:
Centralized Office Dispatch Systems: Provide movement authority and restriction information.
Onboard Computer System: Equipment on the train that receives and interprets the information from dispatch and compares the information against the train’s location.
Wayside ‘Ping’ Units: Equipment that runs along tracks monitor and report switch positions and signal indications to both dispatches and onboard computer systems.
Before a train departs on a trip, the onboard computer system downloads information on the route from centralized office dispatch. This information includes posted speed limits on the route along with any potential hazards.
As the train travels, it is in constant contact with dispatchers via the onboard computer and trackside ping units (these units may also be built into the track itself). These ping units are connected to both dispatchers and the train’s onboard computer via a radio network, so both dispatch and the train are always aware of speed and location.
If the train is moving too fast for an area, the onboard computer sends a warning to the engineer. In the event of an emergency, the PTC system can override the actions of the engineer and slow or stop a train by remotely applying the brake system.
Since the system always knows where each train is, PTC can also prevent collisions between two trains, keep trains from mistakenly going through work zones and stop trains that have mistakenly gone through a signal or when a switch has been left in the wrong position.
Positive Train Control Legislation
For years, Positive Train Control has been on the National Transportation Safety Board’s ‘Most Wanted List’. In the wake of several devastating train crashes between 2002 and 2008, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), which mandated that PTC be implemented across a significant portion of the country’s rail industry by the end of 2015.
Not long after the RSIA was signed into law, the rail industry began a fervent lobbying campaign to push the PTC deadline back. The rail industry spent a reported $316 million in lobbying efforts in Washington D.C., and contributed $24 million to the reelection campaigns of numerous members of Congress.
As the deadline approached, the railroads warned of a “transportation crisis,” saying certain freight and passenger lines would need to be shut down, resulting in $30 billion in losses to the American economy, if the PTC deadline was not extended.
“Positive Train Control will protect passengers and prevent future tragedy yet the industry and Congress have dragged its feet causing needless death and destruction.”
-Attorney Ronald Goldman
In October of 2015, the rail industry got what they lobbied for. Led by the efforts of Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), the House attached a PTC deadline extension to a must-pass highway funding bill. “We need to extend the Positive Train Control Deadline as soon as possible to prevent significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across this country,” said Shuster, who himself accepted nearly half a million dollars in campaign contributions from the rail industry between 2001 and 2015.
The highway bill passed, granting the railroads a new deadline for PTC implementation. The rail industry now has until December 31, 2018 to implement PTC, with the possibility of two additional years tacked on for testing purposes.
According to NTSB statistics, PTC could have prevented 145 train accidents between 1969 and 2015. Those accidents killed 288 people and injured 6,574 others. How many more people will be harmed as a result of our country’s failure to implement this life-saving technology?
Positive Train Control Updates
PTC Implementation Status by Railroad (Second Quarter 2018) Aug. 30, 2018
US Lawmakers Urge Enforcement Action Against Railroads That Do Not Meet PTC Deadline March 1, 2018
A recent report issued by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimates that two-thirds of all U.S. passenger railroads are in danger of missing the end of the year deadline to install positive train control (PTC).
The FRA report caught the attention of several senators on a Senate Commerce Committee oversight panel, including the chair of the committee, Senator John Thune (R-SC), who said the railroads should be held to account if they fail to meet the deadline.
“If railroads do not comply with the law by the year’s end,” regulators should “take the enforcement action needed to bring railroads into compliance,” said Senator Thune on Thursday.
Railroads transporting passengers or hazardous materials are required to implement PTC or qualify for an extension by the end of 2018. If they fail to install PTC or are not granted an extension, railroads can be penalized by the FRA.
Since Congress mandated PTC in 2008, the deadline to implement the technology has been repeatedly pushed back as lawmakers continue to kowtow to lobbying efforts by the railroads.
The NTSB has long called for the implementation of PTC. Numerous train accidents, including the derailments in South Carolina and Washington State, could have been avoided if PTC had been installed.
“After about 40 years’ worth of excuses, and delay after delay, it is about time that Congress decided to make it more expensive for railroads to delay further than to comply and actually complete the installation of this life-saving technology,” says Ronald L. M. Goldman.
CEO of Amtrak Will Testify Before House Panel on PTC February 8, 2018
Over the past several weeks, Amtrak has been involved in three high-profile train accidents throughout the country, adding more scrutiny to the passenger rail service. In November of 2017, the NTSB criticized Amtrak’s “weak safety culture.”
Anderson will appear before the panel with officials from federal agencies and the rail industry on Feb. 15, 2018.
Fatal Amtrak Derailment in South Carolina Could Have Been Avoided with PTC February 4, 2018
The train was on Amtrak’s Silver Star route transporting passengers from New York City to Miami when it crashed at around 2:45 a.m. EST. The deceased were identified as Michael Kempf, 54, or Savannah, Ga., and Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Fla. Kempf was the engineer and Cella was the conductor. Both were in the first train car when the accident occurred.
Investigators said a track switch locked in the wrong position diverted Amtrak Train 91 onto a side track then collided with the idle CSX freight train. According to officials with the NTSB, the track did not have PTC, which would have prevented the fatal crash.
A final report on the Amtrak crash in South Carolina will likely take a year or more to complete.
NTSB: PTC Could Have Prevented Amtrak Cascades Derailment in Washington January 4, 2018
On Dec. 18, 2017, an Amtrak train operating on a new route derailed on an overpass above a busy Interstate 5. Several rail cars spilled onto the highway with one dangling from the bridge. Three people were killed in the derailment and dozens of others sustained injuries.
The train was reportedly going just below 80 mph at the time of the derailment, more than 50 mph above the posted speed limit. A sign is posted roughly two miles before the derailment site noting the 30 mph speed limit. A second sign is posted just before the curve in the tracks where Amtrak Train 501 derailed.
“We have recommended PTC for decades,” said NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr after the train accident. “Unfortunately the deadline was moved farther into the future, and every year that we wait to implement PTC to its fullest extent means that more people will be killed and injured.”
Her sentiments were echoed by train accident attorney Ronald L.M. Goldman, a longtime advocate for PTC. “It is inarguable that PTC saves lives,” says Goldman. And yet, the rail industry and lawmakers have continued to drag their feet, resulting in needless death and destruction.”
PTC Implementation Status by Railroad October 1, 2017
According to the APTA report, by the end of 2016, 30 percent of passenger rail locomotives and cab cars had PTC technology installed and 50 percent of PTC radio towers were erected. Meanwhile, 23 percent of commuter railroad route miles have either fully operational PTC or full demonstration PTC.
Initially, Congress gave commuter railroads until the end of 2015 to install PTC but commuter railroads were slow in implementing the technology, leading Congress to push back compliance dates to December 31, 2018. Unfortunately, that delay meant that the trains involved in the Hoboken and Texas Panhandle train crashes in 2016 were not equipped with positive train control, which experts argue would have prevented both accidents and saved lives.
FRA Report on Positive Train Control Says Implementation is Uneven
December 5, 2016
Major railroads do not appear to be making much progress in implementing positive train control. After being given an additional three years to implement the lifesaving train safety technology, PTC implementation across the nation is “uneven,” according to a new report issued by the Federal Railroad Administration last week.
According to the report, freight railroads have implemented PTC on approximately 12 percent of their tracks. Passenger rail systems are doing just a bit better, with PTC installed on up to 23 percent of tracks.
Below is a status update on where the major freight railroads stand on PTC implementation, based on the metrics of locomotives equipped with PTC, track segments completed, radio towers installed, employee training completed, and overall route miles with PTC in operation:
U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Railroad Administration
Below are several important bills involving Positive Train Control (PTC):
Positive Train Control Implementation and Financing Act: Introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) in January 2018 – The Positive Train Control Implementation and Financing Act was proposed in an effort to ensure that railroads do not miss the December 2018 deadline for installing PTC. It would provide $2.6 billion to the nation’s railroads for the emergency installation of PTC, and would prohibit railroads from launching new passenger routes until PTC is installed on them. Rep. DeFazio proposed the legislation in response to the Dec. 18, 2017 Amtrak Train 501 crash in Washington state that killed three and left dozens of others injured. According to the NTSB, the crash could have been avoided if PTC had been installed.
Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act: Introduced by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) in February 2015 – The Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act (H.R. 749) would authorize appropriations totaling $7.2 billion over the 2016-2020 period for rail programs, including $5.3 billion for grants to Amtrak and $1.2 billion for grants to states for intercity rail projects. According to a Statement of Administrative Policy issued by the White House, the bill would “improve passenger rail service at the national, regional, and State levels, enable local communities to implement critical grade crossing safety measures, and help commuter railroads enhance safety by installing positive train control systems.” Current Status: : Received in the Senate, referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (03/09/2015).
Commuter Rail Passenger Safety Act: Introduced by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D- NY) in February 2015 – The Commuter Rail Passenger Safety Act (H.R. 946) changes the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 to make the installation of positive train control systems eligible for railroad rehabilitation and improvement direct loans and loan guarantees. Current Status: Died in Congress.
Railroad Safety and Positive Train Control Extension Act: Introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) in March 2015 – The Railroad Safety and Positive Train Control Extension Act (S.650) revises the deadline for rail carriers to implement a positive train control (PTC) system from December 2015 to December 2020. The bill also revises federal regulations that would require Class II or III railroads (including a tourist or excursion railroad) to implement PTC in order to operate in PTC territory. Current Status: Placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders (09/22/2016).
A Bill to Incentivize Early Adoption of Positive Train Control, and for Other Purposes: Introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in April 2015 – 1006 was introduced to put a stop to the unnecessary delay in implementing PTC. In response to S.650, which could give railroads a five year or more extension on implementing PTC, the bill establishes a reasonable timeline and framework of allowing one-year extensions, offered only on a case-by-case basis, until 2018. Current Status: Referred to Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (04/16/2015).
Crashes That Could Have Been Avoided if PTC Had Been Implemented
Safety experts have indicated that the following train accidents could have been avoided had PTC been implemented:
Amtrak Train Crash in South Carolina Kills Two, 100+ Injured (February 4, 2018) – Amtrak Train 91 was diverted onto a side track where it collided with an idle CSX freight train. The collision killed two train crew members and left over 100 other people with injuries. “An operational PTC system is designed to prevent this kind of accident,” said NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt in the aftermath of the crash.
Three Dead in Texas Panhandle Freight Train Crash (June 28, 2016) – Two Burlington North Santa Fe freight trains collided in the Texas Panhandle, killing three train crew members. The sequence of events that led to the deadly train accident started when one of the train crew members missed a signal. According to a BNSF spokesman, the accident could have been avoided if PTC had been implemented.
Eight Dead, Over 200 Injured in Philadelphia Amtrak Train Crash (May 12, 2015) – The New York-bound train was traveling over 100 miles-per-hour in a 50-miles-per-hour zone when it reached a curve and derailed. While the investigation into the Philly crash is still underway, Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said “this accident would not have occurred” if PTC had been installed. With respect to Train 188, it could have assessed the high speed and the approaching curve, determined that the train could not stay on the tracks at that speed in that curve, and slowed the train to a safe speed well before it started its way around the curve.
Six Killed, More Than a Dozen Hurt in New York Metro-North Train Crash (February 3, 2015) – A Metro-North train collided with an SUV sitting on the tracks at a crossing. In the wake of this tragedy, New York Representative Sean Maloney said new technology “could have minimized the tragic outcome” of the fatal Metro-North accident. The PTC system would likely have recognized the hazard and stopped the train well before the crossing.
Four Dead, at Least 61 Injured in Metro-North Train Crash in the Bronx (December 1, 2013) – The commuter train was going roughly 83 miles-per-hour in a zone where the speed limit was 30 miles-per-hour. The train derailed at a curve. According to NTSB findings, PTC would have averted the fatal Metro-North derailment.