2018 Rail PTC Extension rolls through Congress

Congress acted to avert confusion and delay on the nation’s rail infrastructure on Wednesday October 28th, 2015 by passing an extension to what had been a looming December 31st, 2015 deadline for railroads to fully implement Positive Train Control, or PTC, control systems on their networks.

PTC is a control system that uses Global Positioning System (GPS) data combined with both onboard and trackside control and communications systems to provide “fail-safe” control over train movements.  Congress mandated the national installation of such a system in 2008 following an horrific crash on LA’s commuter rail system in which a Metrolink passenger and Union Pacific freight train collided.  An NTSB safety investigation later determined that the passenger train’s engineer (fatally injured along with twenty four passengers) had violated a stop signal and run into the freight train occupying the same track.  The NTSB alleged that using a cell phone distracted the Metrolink engineer at the time of the collision.

Costs & Red Tape Caused Delays

Railroads have engaged in a concerted effort to complete such a national PTC system by the 12/31/2015 deadline but have been hindered by the massive financial outlay required as well as significant delays due to the federal government’s often lengthy process requiring environmental studies, construction permits, and radio communication licensing.  Interoperability issues and a shortage of trained electronic engineers also caused delay.  As the end of the year approached, railroads warned Congress that they would shut down to avoid the fines that might result if they continued to try to operate while not fully compliant.

Pressure Forced Congressional Action

Chemical, Agricultural, Heavy Manufacturing, and passenger advocacy groups all brought pressure to bear on Congress to allow a conditional extension.  A slight delay to action ensued due to a bit of last minute Washington political horse-trading; however, on 28 October, 2015 both houses of Congress added the extension to a three-week funding extension to the National Highway Trust Fund (see the Surface Transportation Extension Act 2015 (HR 3819)).  The PTC extension grants a three-year delay to required completion of the network, with a variety of progress reports due to Congress and or the Federal Railroad Administration during the extension period.  At present, most railroads have about a 60% complete system in place with the prospect of testing and break-in/de-bugging operations after completion of the necessary physical infrastructure, leading to an estimated late 2016/early 2017 in-service timeframe.  The extension should facilitate this while avoiding disruption to the normal flow of critical rail transport.

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