Amtrak Holding Firm on PTC View

Amtrak is doubling down on an assertion made earlier this year to Congress by its CEO Richard Anderson that it will not operate on routes that are required to have positive train control but which fail to make the deadline to installing it.

Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, Stephen Gardner, told a House Appropriations Committee hearing that Amtrak still has not decided if it will use routes that are not required to have PTC.

Gardner said the passenger carrier continues to study whether it can safely operate on PTC-exempt routes, which tend to be on regional railroads.

He acknowledged during the hearing that Amtrak’s Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief might be adversely affected by the PTC issue.

However, Gardner qualified his testimony by suggesting that Amtrak might use routes that receive an extension from the Federal Railroad Administration of the Dec. 31, 2018, PTC deadline that is mandated by federal law.

As did Anderson, Gardner said there will be segments of routes used by Amtrak over which the carrier won’t operate if a PTC waiver has not been obtained by the host railroad.

“ . . . We believe PTC is part of a modern passenger rail system and we want to see PTC levels of safety across our network. We’re going to be analyzing those areas where safety improvements can be made,” Gardner said.

When pressed by Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-California) about the Southwest Chief, Gardner said Amtrak “will provide service on the portions of the route that have PTC, but there may be parts of our network where we believe PTC is required – if that route has high operating speeds – and we want to make sure we have a single level of safety across our network.”

Gardner said Amtrak route safety assessment will conclude this summer.

The Southwest Chief route is required to have PTC between Albuquerque and Lamy, New Mexico, where Amtrak shares tracks with Rail Runner commuter trains.

However, the route between Lamy and Trinidad, Colorado, is exempted. The former Santa Fe route used by the Chief across Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico has an automatic train stop system that dates from the 1920s.

It requires a locomotive engineer to acknowledge any restrictive signal indication or suffer a penalty brake application.

Gardner also took a shot at Amtrak’s host railroads for creating an “existential crisis” by delaying its trains through freight train interference.

He called for legislation allowing Amtrak to sue host railroads over failure to give passenger trains dispatching priority.

Asked why Amtrak is giving up special trains and restricting its carriage of private passenger cars, Gardner said the carrier is restricting the number of places that it operates to its core network.

He noted that some specials and charters have used routes not covered by scheduled Amtrak trains and that any additional revenue it made from those moves caused “a minimum amount of disruption and distraction away from our core business.”

He said going off network exposed Amtrak to new operating challenges and safety risks.

Gardner said Amtrak’s goal is to offer services on its current routes “where we can use equipment that we are confident in and the requirements on our end are manageable, not a distraction, and do not divert our core staff from the job of becoming fully PTC implemented, focusing on improving on-time performance, and providing great customer service.”

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