— by Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
Since the Rail Safety Improvement Act was enacted in 2008, nearly 40 U.S. freight and commuter railroads have spent a lot of money in an attempt to implement positive train control (PTC) by the mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 2015.
As of mid-November, the impacted railroads had collectively expended more than $1.5 billion, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The vast majority of those dollars were disbursed by the U.S. Class Is, which likely will face a total implementation price tag of about $10 billion.
But a number of regionals and short lines are confronting sizable installation costs, as well.
The Alaska Railroad Corp. (ARRC), Belt Railway Co. of Chicago, Kansas City Terminal Railway, Portland & Western Railroad and Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis are pursuing plans to install PTC equipment by the deadline, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
Conversely, the Buckingham Branch Railroad, Minnesota Commercial Railway, New England Central Railroad, New Orleans Public Belt Railroad Co., Pan Am Railways and Vermont Rail System obtained exemptions from PTC installation requirements, FRA records show.
Yet the law's impact on regionals and short lines is much more significant than the federal list of mandated and exempted small railroads might indicate, says American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) President Richard Timmons.
Although Congress' intent was to exempt all Class IIs and Class IIIs from PTC requirements stipulated in the Rail Safety Improvement Act, small railroads that help move traffic on Class Is' lines or are connected with commuter-rail systems need to install PTC equipment on their locomotives to comply with the letter of the law, he says.
Moreover, Class Is can determine whether one of their connecting short lines must install onboard PTC equipment, depending on the working arrangement between a Class I and Class III, says Timmons.
"We believe this affects 100 to 110 short lines," he says, adding that 46 short lines also touch commuter- or passenger-rail systems.
The biggest headache for any impacted short-line operator: the cost to install microprocessor-based PTC equipment in older locomotives, which weren't designed to accommodate modern electronics, says Timmons.
The average age of most locomotives operated by short lines is 25 years. So, equipment installation costs per locomotive could range from $70,000 to $100,000, or perhaps reach as high as $140,000 or $150,000, depending on the model and age, the ASLRRA estimates.
"The cost is enormous to a small guy. Where will the money come from?" says Timmons. "It could come down to not serving the Class I anymore or going out of business."
In addition, there's a continuous-cost element involved because Class Is will need to constantly upgrade their electronic PTC equipment to keep up with the latest technology, and short lines likewise will need to ensure their onboard equipment remains compatible, he says.
And some small railroads will need to maintain a small office operation to tie into a Class I's back office system.
Because there's "lots of missing information now" and some confusion as to how to comply with a Class I's PTC requirement or how to pay for it, the ASLRRA plans to hold a symposium in first-quarter 2013 with the AAR, FRA, PTC vendors and short lines to help sort things out, says Timmons.
Just as it has for the past three-and-a-half years, the evolving PTC implications likely will play out over time for short lines, he says.
"It will proceed chapter by chapter," says Timmons.
That's generally been the pace so far for ARRC. The more than 500-mile regional has spent the past few years developing a four-phase PTC implementation program and determining installation costs, which are expected to total about $120 million, including $53 million already spent to complete backbone communication system upgrades and replace a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to prepare for implementation.
But efforts to reach the next chapter in the railroad's implementation manual are tied to the pace of technological developments.
ARRC plans to install an Interoperable – Electronic Train Management System (I-ETMS), which will include the new CAD system; an onboard computer system, 220 MHz VHF packet radio and Global Positioning System locator technologies and wayside devices.
I-ETMS will integrate CAD, onboard equipment and wayside devices with a dedicated communication network, according to a project report posted on the railroad's web site.
The regional is working with its contractor, Wabtec Railway Electronics, to advance the program.
ARRC had expected to complete the first phase — the installation of a Train Management and Dispatch System (TMDS) — last month, according to the report, which was posted earlier this year. But as of press time, railroad officials were in negotiations with the contractor and preferred not to comment on the program and its progress, said ARRC's Manager of External Affairs Tim Sullivan in an email.
TMDS is designed to implement Centralized Traffic Control and dark-territory Track Warrant Control as the railroad's methods of operation.
According to the online report, the program's second phase calls for installing MeteorComm L.L.C. 220 MHz packet data radios in base stations, locomotives and wayside devices in a 60-mile test corridor from Anchorage Yard to the Whittier Division. In addition, six locomotives will be equipped with a train management computer and radio equipment for testing, feature validation and verification.
Functional testing is necessary to submit a PTC safety plan to the FRA, according to the online report. ARRC expects to submit the plan in spring 2014 and obtain approval — which would enable I-ETMS to be used in revenue service — sometime in 2015.
The third phase calls for installing monitoring equipment for the wayside devices outside of the test corridor, and outfitting the remaining 47 locomotives with an onboard computer and radio equipment.
Under the fourth phase, the regional plans to focus on integrating on-track vehicles for monitoring, alerting and warning of authority limits, and their proximity to other maintenance vehicles.
Earlier this year, ARRC estimated it would spend an additional $70 million to complete implementation. For 2012, the railroad budgeted $4 million in Federal Transit Administration grants and $1 million of its own funds to complete the first phase and begin the second.
The railroad anticipates receiving FRA safety certification for its system by Dec. 31, 2015.