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Testing, Cost Among Reasons For Slow Arrival Of 'Positive Train Control' Technology

Lee Adlaf

It’s been about a decade since Congress passed a law mandating that railroads develop and implement safety technology known as 'Positive Train Control' (PTC), a system designed to monitor train locations and speeds, track switching configurations, and other data. If dangerous conditions are detected, PTC is supposed to override human operators and prevent accidents.

It's taken longer than envisioned to implement PTC technology on the nation's rail lines. WFAE's Mark Rumsey discussed the economics of implementing PTC with Dr. Mark Burton, of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. 

Mark Rumsey: Where do things stand exactly with putting the Positive Train Control systems into place with the nation’s railroads?  

Dr. Mark Burton: Well, the original deadline was at the end of 2016 and Congress extended that to the end of 2018. Most of the railroads report that they’re making good progress and anticipate meeting the 2018 deadline.

Rumsey: Why has it taken this long to put the technology into place?

Burton: First of all, PTC at the time it was mandated by Congress was more experimental. There had been a few applications, but by and large all of the infrastructure and the on-board equipment used in PTC applications had to be developed or at least refined and further tested before they knew what sort of system would function best and be most reliable, so that’s certainly been one element. The cost is not inconsequential. I think the freight railroads have spent on the order of $10 billion of their money to develop and implement PTC, and then the federal government has provided some grants for commuter railroad and other non-freight carriers. And finally, there have been any number of bureaucratic delays, so it’s really been a combination of factors.

Rumsey: There has to be some impact of that kind of spending on the railroads themselves – is this a good investment, in your mind, for the rail system?

Burton: This is a ‘first generation’ of Positive Train Control. It doesn’t really provide the freight railroads any significant benefit. There will be subsequent generations of PTC that will evolve and they will be quite beneficial to the railroads. Right now, as it’s being implemented, it’s very hard for them to justify the expenditures.

Rumsey: Dr. Burton, I just want to be clear – you don’t feel that what’s being installed at this time with Positive Train Control technology will substantially reduce the risk of accidents? Am I hearing you right?

No, no, no..that’s certainly not what I mean to say. PTC as it’s being implemented will very definitely prevent accidents from occurring. The costs of those accidents to the freight railroad, however, are not really that frequent, although it may seem otherwise.

Rumsey: Of course, where passenger lines are involved and lives are at stake, it’s a different matter in terms of a discussion about cost effectiveness.

Burton: That’s right. And PTC is required anyplace where freight activity is mixed with passenger transporation, and certainly when  you put passengers into the mix you get some very different answers.

Rumsey: We are hearing of multiple accidents in recent months including just a few days ago in South Carolina with Amtrak and a CSX freight train. Can you say, from your knowledge, whether an implemented, working PTC system would have prevented these most recent accidents?

Burton: In the case of South Carolina, there isn’t enough information yet to know precisely what happened. I can say that this is the type of incident that PTC is designed to prevent. So the indication is, had PTC been in place and been operational, it would have been supposed to have prevented this kind of collision.