Posts Tagged ‘Positive Train Control’

BNSF Seeks PTC Deadline Extension

June 15, 2018

Over the past year there has been a cascade of reports about the progress that U.S. railroads are making toward installing positive train control systems on tracks that carry passengers or hazardous cargo.

The federal law that mandates PTC be installed by the end of this year also allows for an extension of the deadline if certain conditions are met.

The bid for an extension must be made to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Although the PTC deadline is still several months away, the first request for a two-year extension has been made and it has come from an unlikely source.

BNSF said last December that it had installed and was operating PTC on all subdivisions required to have it, making the western railroad a leader in PTC installation.

But BNSF is seeking the extension because of what it terms how the FRA is interpreting federal law as to the interoperability of PTC, which means that locomotives from one railroad can operate under the PTC systems of another carrier.

In a news release, BNSF said the FRA has interpreted federal law to mean that all other railroads operating across any of BNSF’s PTC-equipped lines must be capable of operating with BNSF’s PTC system, but not all railroads that use BNSF track will have completed their PTC installation by the end of this year.

BNSF also said that interoperability of PTC systems between Class I, commuter and short-line rail carriers “remains a challenge.”

The Fort Worth-based carrier said it has PTC in place on 88 required subdivisions covering more than 11,500 route miles.

Recently Amtrak and BNSF announced that two long-distance passenger trains using BNSF track, the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr, will begin using PTC this summer.

In a series of progress reports, the FRA has indicated that some railroads, particularly commuter carriers, are in jeopardy of not only missing the PTC installation deadline but also failing to make sufficient progress to qualify for an extension of the PTC deadline.

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Amtrak, BNSF to Implement PTC on Select Routes

June 12, 2018

Amtrak expected to implement positive control operations this week on trains using BNSF tracks, including the Southwest Chief and California Zephyr

It will be the first activation on host-owned territory used by Amtrak. BNSF and Amtrak expect full activation of PTC operations on BNSF routes that host these two trains to be completed by the end of August.

“This is a great step for Amtrak,” said BNSF Assistant Vice President Network Control Systems Chris Matthews. “We have the infrastructure in place that allows Amtrak to operate on our network. We have partnered with them on the federal mandate and in some cases beyond the federal mandate to install PTC on subdivisions not required of BNSF. We look forward to continuing that partnership as they roll-out PTC along our routes.”

As for its own physical plant, Amtrak said it is making progress toward installing and activating PTC.

To date Amtrak said it has installed PTC on 380 of 444 Amtrak-owned locomotives and that 86 percent of the motive power fleet is PTC operable.

Amtrak said 607 of its 900 routes miles has PTC in operation, 95 percent of employees who require training have completed it, and 104 of 120 radio towers have PTC full installed and equipped.

The passenger carrier said it is working with its host railroads on PTC implementation and expects nearly all of them to qualify for an alternative PTC implementation schedule as allowed under federal law.

A risk analysis study is being undertaken for operating on routes under an extension or under an FRA-approved exemption.

That study is expected to result in developing strategies for enhancing safety on a route-by-route basis.

Reiterating a position that Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson stated earlier, Amtrak said that on a very limited number of routes where a host railroad has not met the federal PTC deadline that Amtrak “will suspend service and may seek alternative modes of service until such routes come into compliance.”

Vermonters Still Wary Of Service Future

May 3, 2018

Although Vermont officials and rail passenger advocates are optimistic that Amtrak service to their state will survive, they are not taking that for granted.

Many in Vermont became alarmed after Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson told a congressional hearing in February that the passenger carrier would likely suspend service using routes that are not protected by positive train control.

Anderson was speaking about the prospect that some of its host railroads might not meet a Dec. 31, 2018, deadline set by federal law to install PTC.

However, the New York-Rutland Ethan Allen Express and Washington-St. Albans Vermonter use routes in the Green Mountain state that are not required to have PTC under federal law.

Both trains are funded in part by the State of Vermont.

Following Anderson’s comment an Amtrak government affairs manager tried to downplay the matter, suggesting that Vermont’s trains are likely to continue.

Amtrak is studying how and if to operate on route that are not required to have PTC.

However, of late Vermont officials have sound the alarm again because they say that Amtrak officials have been noncommittal in speaking about the future of the Vermont service.

They say Amtrak has not yet ruled out the possibility at the Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express will cease operating to Vermont on Jan. 1, 2019.

Another complication, Vermont officials say, is the prospect that a segment of the Vermonter’s route in Massachusetts may not meet administrative requirements that would reassure Amtrak of its safety.

The segment in question is 49 miles owned by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation that it purchased in 2014 from Pan Am Railways so that the Vermonter would reach a higher population base.

The resulted in rerouting the Vermonter from a route via Amherst to a route via Northhampton.

There are no plans at present to install PTC on that line.

There is little rail traffic on the route and the Federal Railroad Administration might be willing to grant it a waiver from the PTC requirement.

The Vermont Business Magazine said it had spoken with two sources who attended an April 16 meeting in Washington of the Rail Passenger Association, a national advocacy group.

During that meeting, Chris Jagodzinski, Amtrak’s vice president for operations, displayed a map indicating, in practice, the relative likelihood that Amtrak would cease serving certain route segments.

The sources said the 49-mile segment in Massachusetts is rated among the highest-risk routes because its lacks a PTC plan.

Vermont officials fear that Amtrak might refuse to run the Vermonter north of Springfield and instead carry passengers there by bus.

They also fear that once rail service is lost, it might be difficult to get it back.

A MassDOT spokesperson declined to comment on the PTC issue other than to make an innocuous statement in support of rail passenger service and referring specific questions to Amtrak.

Nonetheless, a source told the Vermont Business Magazine that MassDOT is working with the FRA, Amtrak and Pan Am to resolve the PTC issue, which the source said appears to be “solvable” by the PTC deadline.

An Amtrak spokesperson said the carrier is just now beginning to undertake a safety review of the Ethan Allen route and has yet to begin the review of the Vermonter route.

Federal law requires that if service is to be terminated by Amtrak, it must give 180 days notice. If service to Vermont is end or be suspended on Jan. 1, 2019, the notice would need to be given by July 5.

The Vermont Agency of Transportation and Genesee & Wyoming, which owns the tracks used by the Vermonter in Vermont are seeking a $1.6 million grant under the federal Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements grant program that could be used to pay for safety equipment.

This could includes, for example, the installation of rock slide detectors.

“At this point the ball is in Amtrak’s court,” Michele Boomhower, director of policy planning and intermodal development at VTrans, said. “We have no time frame for anything changing, so we’re operating on a business-as-usual framework, awaiting Amtrak’s safety analysis.”

Amtrak Holding Firm on PTC View

April 12, 2018

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.”

Amtrak Backpedals on Talk of Ending Service on Routes Lacking PTC

March 7, 2018

On second thought never mind. Amtrak has quickly backpedaled on comments made by CEO Richard Anderson that lack of progress on installation of positive train control might result in the carrier ending service to Vermont.

 “Right now we have no plans to cease any service on any route,” Amtrak’s Bill Hollister told Vermont Business Magazine.

Of course the operative words in that statement are “at this time.” Amtrak didn’t say that ending service to Vermont would not occur. Yet it has signaled that it is unlikely.

The Green Mountain State funds trains linking the state with New York City from St. Albans (Vermonter) and Rutland (Ethan Allen Express).

Anderson had suggested the service might end due to lack of progress on installing PTC during a congressional hearing.

The issue is not the tracks in Vermont, which are not required by federal law to have PTC, but on those elsewhere.

Some U.S. railroads are facing a Dec. 31 deadline to install PTC and some are not expected to be able to make that deadline.

The strong adverse reaction of Vermont public officials to Anderson’s congressional remarks caught Amtrak off guard. But Vermont officials in turn were surprised by what Anderson said.

Dan Delabruere, director of Vermont’s Agency of Transportation’s Rail and Aviation Bureau said Anderson’s suggestion that the Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express would be suspended “kind of shocked a lot of people. We did not know this announcement was coming.”

At a recent meeting of the bureau’s advisory board, Bill Hollister, Amtrak’s senior manager of government affairs for state-supported services in the Northeast, tried to mend fences.

“I want to apologize to Vermont for all the angst [the Anderson statement] caused,” he said. Hollister said Amtrak “did not expect [a reaction] that strong.”

Delabruere said Vermont officials have had several conversations with Amtrak since Anderson’s testimony and learned that the passenger carrier is undertaking an analysis of safety risks on its route network and exploring remedies less onerous than the installation of PTC in Vermont and elsewhere, to address perceived safety risks.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Delabruere said. “We don’t know what that’s going to mean for us. I can’t even speculate.”

In the meantime, Anderson somewhat softened the stance he took earlier. In testimony to a Senate committee on March 1, Anderson said Amtrak is “reevaluating” future service in light of safety concerns.

“We have to determine whether we continue to operate in non-PTC territory, and apply the principles of our safety management system to mitigate” risks on those rail routes,” he said. “We should establish PTC as the standard for passenger rail in America, including dark territory, and including covering the areas that are today excluded by the law.”

In response to a question from Senator Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire), Anderson said Amtrak has a research and development project underway “to determine whether we can use technologies from Europe that don’t require as much trackside investment, but that would give us speed restriction and signal location.”

“I’m not sure if Anderson even knew the implications of what he was saying,” said Ira Silverman, who worked in Amtrak management for 20 years. “The reality is, when he announces that he’s shutting these trains down, do you believe there isn’t going to be a political reaction?”

Hollister indicated after the meeting in Vermont that a compromise between the status quo and PTC implementation on all of Vermont’s Amtrak routes seems likely.

“The game plan is to work towards mitigation of risks,” he said, adding that it is an ongoing process in which Amtrak and its state partners will draft and implement plans to improve safety on Amtrak routes.

GAO Says 7 to 19 Commuter Railroads Won’t Meet PTC Deadline, Qualify for Waiver

March 1, 2018

Two-thirds of U.S. commuter railroads are likely to miss the Dec. 31 deadline to install positive train control, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released on Wednesday.

The GAO report said under current law those transit agencies may not be eligible for a deadline extension, either.

Seven to 19 U.S. commuter railroads have not given their workers enough time to complete six milestones required by the Federal Railroad Administration to qualify for waivers for full positive train control operation.

That waiver allows a railroad that is required to have PTC operational by Dec. 31 to get an extension up to Dec. 31, 2020. The six milestones are:

• Installing all necessary PTC system hardware.
• Acquiring all necessary radio spectrum.
• Completing required employee training.
• Submitting to the FRA an alternate implementation schedule.
• Certifying that a railroad will comply with the law according to the alternative schedule.
• Operating a revenue service demonstration on at least one territory where PTC will be required.

The latter requirement is causing the biggest problems for commuter railroads, the GAO report said, because it can take one to three years from the beginning of field tests, during which trains are not relying on PTC systems but are connected to the systems, to the start of revenue demonstrations.

Seven commuter railroads can’t begin testing until June, which leaves them at risk of failing to qualify for a waiver.

The report does not name the railroads that are likely to miss the PTC deadline.

As for why the railroads are struggling to comply with the law, the GAO report cited a variety of factors, including a lack of expertise, scheduling difficulties, lack of coordination between host railroads (often Class I freight railroads) and commuter lines, as well as FRA’s capacity to handle the work load.

The GAO recommended that the FRA create a standard way to send information to railroads on deadline extension criteria and processes.

It also suggested that the FRA set up a priority system for how it will allocate personnel and resources to process an expected increase in paperwork that railroads submit, as well as assist those railroads that need technical assistance.

Thus far, the FRA has been releasing information in informal ways, including presentations at industry conferences and webinars, rather than through formal, published documents.

The GAO found that the FRA has only 12 staffers who have the skills needed to review the PTC paperwork submitted by the railroads.

An FRA spokesperson told Trains magazine that it plans to hold meeting with executives of all 41 railroads required to have PTC installed this year to assess their challenges and implementation plans.

Information gleaned from those meetings will be used to conduct oversight of railroads’ PTC activities.

PTC Issues Could Sideline Vermont Trains

February 27, 2018

Amtrak service to Vermont could become a casualty of the wrangling over the installation and implementation of positive train control.

The state funds the Vermonter and Ethan Allen Express, both of which link the Green Mountain State with New York City.

In testimony given on Feb. 15 to a congressional committee, Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson noted that the tracks Amtrak uses in Vermont are exempt from a federal law that requires that PTC be installed by the end of 2018.

In his testimony, Anderson said he doubted that the Vermont services would continue operating as a result, but Amtrak later clarified that the passenger carrier has yet to make a decision on that.

Anderson had said that Amtrak won’t operate over tracks that are not in compliance with federal law pertaining to PTC.

“[f]or those instances, where we will not have PTC even after the 12/31 deadline because It’s not required by statute, we have a question about whether we’re going to operate at all, and I doubt we will,” Anderson told the committee.

The next day, though, Amtrak assistant vice president for operations Chris Jagodzinski said the carrier is launching a risk analysis of its 21,000 miles of routes.

Jogodizinski spoke at a meeting in Washington with the States for Passenger Rail Coalition with some state officials listening in via a conference call.

“They’re just having their first risk analysis meeting today,” said Dan Delabruere, who heads up Vermont’s passenger rail program at the Agency of Transportation.

Delabruere said Amtrak officials said that the scope of that analysis remains to be determined.

“There certainly wasn’t a hard, fast, ‘We’re going to stop’,” he said, referring to Jagodzinski’s comments in regards to Amtrak’s Vermont service.

Vermont public officials have rallied in support of saving the state’s service.

Senator Patrick Leahy said in an email statement, that Amtrak’s managers “have not made any decisions to halt service in Vermont or elsewhere. I will keep working to secure sufficient funding support for Amtrak so it has the resources it needs to continue providing safe service for Vermonters.”

Dan McLean, press representative for Senator Bernie Sanders, wrote, “Bernie does not want to see service suspended. But he does want to see PTC on all passenger and freight trains as soon as possible” as a matter of upgrading infrastructure.

The track used by the Vermonter is owned by the New England Central Railroad while Vermont Rail System owns rails used by the Ethan Allen Express.

Lee Khan, chairman of the Vermont Rail Action Network rail passenger service advocacy group thinks that Anderson is overreacting.

“It’s ridiculous. Our railroads have been safe – we have two of the safest short lines in the country,” she said. “It’s frightening . . . to cancel service. This is an economic driver in this state. It’s hard to imagine that Amtrak would do this. We’ll fight it every step of the way.”

The Politics of PTC

February 21, 2018

Much has been said during the past two months about positive train control, but one of the more interesting comments came from Bennett Levin, the owner of a pair of E8A locomotives painted in the livery of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Levin told Trains magazine that he couldn’t afford the six-figure cost per unit to outfit his locomotives with a PTC device. Instead, he’ll probably sideline them.

Referring to a 2008 federal law that mandates PTC on many railroad routes, Levin described the requirement as “unfortunate and untimely” and suggested the requirement might not exist had a Metrolink commuter train engineer been doing his job instead of texting on his cell phone in the minutes before his train ran past a red signal and crashed head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in Los Angeles, an incident that left 25 dead.

Levin’s comments probably reflect the thinking of others in the railroad industry but it would not be good public relations, let alone good politics, for them to make similar comments.

The Association of American Railroads recently held a press briefing in which it fired an opening salvo on behalf of railroads likely to ask the Federal Railroad Administration for an extension of time to meet the PTC mandate.

The AAR expressed confidence that U.S. railroads will comply with the PTC deadline of
Dec. 31, but an AAR official later said it won’t be known until summer which railroads might seek an extension of time to install PTC.

Those requests for more time might not sit well with some at the FRA, the U.S. Department of Transportation or Congress.

The railroad trade group also was laying the groundwork for future fights concerning PTC by expressing concern that the FRA will micromanage PTC systems once they are in place and operating.

That concern is not without merit given the statements that have been coming virtually nonstop from the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress in the wake of three high profile accidents since December involving Amtrak trains that resulted in fatalities.

In two of those, the NTSB has said that had PTC been operating at the time, the accident likely would have been avoided.

Given what we know about the facts of those three Amtrak collisions, human error was at the root of all of them. The implication is that in at least two of those accidents technology could have overcome human foibles.

Perhaps, but the AAR also made the point during that news conference that PTC is not the magic bullet for rail safety that many are making it out to be. AAR Senior Vice President for Safety and Operations Mike Rush cited a 2005 study that found only 4 percent of mainline accidents could have been prevented by PTC.

Of course safety is paramount advocates will counter that one life lost is one too many.

It is hard to argue against that, yet far more people lose their lives in highway accidents than are killed in railroad accidents and we don’t see a movement to install some form of PTC on highways, the move toward self-driving vehicles notwithstanding.

Most highway fatalities don’t make the national news, only the local news and even then they might not get that much attention, let alone the type of lasting attention needed to prompt policy makers into action.

Society has become numbed by the high number of road fatalities, but expects the government to do something about accidents involving public transportation.

Make no mistake about it. Implementation of PTC is as much a political issue as it is a safety issue.

People who own railroad companies and, for that matter, airline companies, trucking companies, water transportation companies, bus companies, et. al, don’t like being told how to run their business. They don’t like being pushed around by government regulators and policy makers.

During the AAR news conference, Rush tried to make the case that PTC would likely have come about anyway without the government mandate.

He said the industry has spent decades researching PTC and conducted trials, one of which ended in failure.

But all of that got short circuited by the 2008 government mandate. Since then, the railroad industry has invested $10 billion in PTC and figures to spend millions if not billions more in maintaining it.

We’ll never know what the railroad industry would have come up with had it been left to its own devices in developing PTC. Nor will we ever know how many railroads would have installed PTC voluntarily on how much of their networks.

What we do know is that so long as public transportation conveyances continue to have accidents that leave people dead, there will continue to be government regulators and private citizen lobby groups trying to push the transportation industry around by telling them what to do to make travel safer.

Heartland Flyer Route PTC Compliant

February 20, 2018

Tracks used by Amtrak’s Oklahoma City-Fort Worth, Texas, Heartland Flyer are in compliance with federal law mandating installation of a positive train control system by the end of 2018.

A spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation said the BNSF rails used by the Flyer has a PTC system.

She made the comment in wake of testimony to Congress by Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson that passenger train service might be suspended on tracks that are not compliant with the PTC mandate.

Amtrak said it has PTC in place on tracks it owns in the Northeast and in Michigan.

House Committee Lays Down Law on PTC Laggards

February 16, 2018

The railroad industry was put on notice Thursday that it will meet the Dec. 31 deadline to install positive train control or suffer the consequences.

The message was given by members of the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a hearing to review progress on implementing PTC systems.

“The American public is tired of excuses. It’s life-saving technology, but it’s also very complex. We want to get it done quickly, by this deadline, but we also want to get it done right,” said Jeff Denham of California and chairman of the T&I subcommittee that oversees railroads.

Presiding over the hearing, Denham said there have been too many deaths that PTC could have prevented.

“It’s not going to solve all of our challenges but as all in the industry agree, it moves our industry to the next level,” Denham said.

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, said the committee was trying to be reasonable, noting that Congress agreed nearly three years ago to extend the original December 2015 deadline to December 2018.

“But 2018 is real and there is not a single person [on the committee] who’s going to quietly accept the next accident after that deadline,” he said.

The two-hour hearing reviewed technological and policy issues that the railroad industry faces in implementing PTC.

Under prodding from committee members, Federal Railroad Administration Acting Deputy Administrator Juan D. Reyes III said his agency has met with 41 railroads since the first of the year and would soon be making comments on the implementation plans the railroads have submitted.

Denham said that although some carriers have put PTC in place quickly some have yet to begin. “We are well aware there are some that will never get there by the end of the year,” Denham said.

However, some of those who have been slow to respond have not started, have failed thus far to ask for an extension and haven’t sought some of the $31 billion in low-cost Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing loans available for PTC implementation.

In particular, committee members from New Jersey and New York were critical of the lack of progress by New Jersey Transit.

Reyes said the FRA has begun fining railroads that had not kept pace with their implementation plans, calling that “a shot across the bow to tell them we’re serious and  . . . we’re going to push them to get this implemented.”

Denham said he supported in principle a bill sponsored by Capuano and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, that would prohibit the FRA from extending PTC deadlines beyond Dec. 31.

“This has gone on for 10 years now. It ought to be very obvious what needs to be done,” Denham said. “Safety is first in all of our transportation, but as of late there have been too many accidents, and we can do better.”