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.
Positive Train Control

Source: GAO

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 Is It On Track? Yet again, a federally mandated safety technology might have prevented a major train disaster. Human error has been a major cause in many of the worst train accidents. PTC technology, however, prevents many types of human error from causing accidents.

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

Report: Commuter Railroads Make Progress Installing PTC
February 22, 2017

A report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) notes that commuter railroads are now making progress in installing positive train control, although they have fallen behind freight railroads in implementing the technology.

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:

BNSF
Locomotives: 88 percent
Track: 38 percent
Radio Towers: 90 percent
Employee Training: 74 percent
Route Miles: 42 percent

Canadian National
Locomotives: 18 percent
Track: 8 percent
Radio Towers: 65 percent
Employee Training: 60 percent
Route Miles: 0 (zero) percent

Canadian Pacific
Locomotives: 27 percent
Track: 4 percent
Radio Towers: 70 percent
Employee Training: 38 percent
Route Miles: 0 (zero) percent

CSX
Locomotives: 37 percent
Track: 18 percent
Radio Towers: 42 percent
Employee Training: 95 percent
Route Miles: 25 percent

Kansas City Southern
Locomotives: 6 percent
Track: 18 percent
Radio Towers: 63 percent
Employee Training: 18 percent
Route Miles: 0 (zero) percent

Norfolk Southern
Locomotives: 38 percent
Track: 10 percent
Radio Towers: 6 percent
Employee Training: 36 percent
Route Miles: 0 (zero) percent

Union Pacific
Locomotives: 0 (zero) percent
Track: 22 percent
Radio Towers: 81 percent
Employee Training: 14 percent
Route Miles: 0 (zero) percent

PTC Statutory Timeline

U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Railroad Administration

Below are several important bills involving Positive Train Control (PTC):

  • 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:

One Killed, More Than 100 Others Injured in Hoboken Train Accident (September 29, 2016) – A New Jersey Transit train was reportedly going twice the speed limit when it slammed into a concrete bumper block as it entered Hoboken Terminal. The train was not equipped with PTC, which safety experts believe would have stopped the train from crashing.

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.

25 People Killed, 135 Others Injured in Chatsworth, California Metrolink Train Crash (September 12, 2008) – A Metrolink train went through a red light and collided head-on with a freight train. An investigation revealed that the conductor was text messaging and failed to see the red light. Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph H. Boardman told a reporter just a few days after the fatal crash that PTC “would have stopped the train before there was a collision.”

More About Positive Train Control

Train Crashes and Groundhog Day – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

GAO Report: PTC Deadline Must be Pushed Back – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Texas Panhandle Train Crash Could Have Been Prevented – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

NTSB Releases Final Report on Why Amtrak 188 Crashed – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Positive Train Control System Activated on Rail Line Between New York and Philadelphia – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Positive Train Control Now Implemented on 341 Miles of Metrolink Track – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Frankford Junction: One of the Northeast Corridor’s Most Dangerous Stretches of Track – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Amtrak Train 188 Crash in Philadelphia – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Amtrak Crash Illuminates Obstacles to Plan for Controlling Train Speeds – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Amtrak Failed to Implement Automatic Braking System that Could Have Prevented Philadelphia Train Crash – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Yet again, a federally mandated safety technology might have prevented a major train disaster – The Verge

Lawmakers Approve Markup Bill Delaying the Implementation of Positive Train Control – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Positive Train Control Would Have Made a Difference in Oxnard Metrolink Crash – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Positive Train Control Systems – Technology that has Existed for 30 years Could have Prevented this Tragic Accident – Attorney and Mechanical Engineer, Paul Hedlund

Make the Rails Safer – Los Angeles Times

Trains Collide in Chatsworth, California – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman

Crash Victims Expose Metrolink’s Failed Promises – Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman