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— by Jeff Stagl
The implementation of positive train control (PTC) ranks among the U.S. rail industry's costliest and most complicated technological changeovers.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandates that 30 U.S. railroads — including the Class Is, Amtrak and 22 commuter roads — install PTC on certain lines used to transport passengers or hazardous materials by 2015's end. A system designed to monitor and control train movements, PTC helps separate trains and avoid collisions, enforce speed restrictions and protect roadway workers. Each system must be interoperable so train operations are seamless and safety is enhanced between railroads.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimates it will cost the railroads about $10 billion collectively to comply with the law, including $5.5 billion in upfront installation expenses, while safety benefits will total about $600 million.
It's a staggering price tag — one the feds could help mitigate by providing grants, tax credits or other funding mechanisms, railroads say.
The implementation deadline is equally overwhelming. Many of the onboard, wayside, back office and communication subsystems haven't been developed or tested yet, and there are no off-the-shelf products available, railroads say. In addition, they only have six years to get everything designed, tested and installed instead of working at their own pace on PTC, as they have throughout the 2000s.
"We're working under a compressed timeline. If any one thing gets delayed or doesn't work, our ability to meet the deadline will be impacted," says CSX Technology President Frank Lonegro.
Nonetheless, the first large step toward meeting the mandate is quickly approaching; railroads must submit an implementation plan to the FRA by April 16, 2010.
Last month, roads continued to plow ahead with their PTC plans despite lingering cost concerns and ambiguities surrounding the mandate — ones they hoped the FRA's final implementation rule would clear up. As of press time, the rule hadn't been issued and FRA officials declined to comment prior to its release.
Railroads want to know which portions of their network will require PTC according to the final rule. For example, will a coal line that handles even one car carrying toxic-by-inhalation materials need to be included in an implementation plan?
Without some answers, railroads won't know the "nuts and bolts" required to deploy PTC, says Tom Schnautz, Norfolk Southern Railway's director of advanced train control systems.
"As systems get developed, interpretations might differ. We need consistency in interpretations and responses from the FRA," he says. "At the 1,000-foot level, I think there will be clarity in the rule."
Railroads also are seeking assurance that the feds won't expand the scope of implementation, so subsystems already developed don't have to be redesigned, says BNSF Vice President of Safety and Operations Support Mark Schulze.
Estimating total costs is proving difficult until the final rule is released, as well, railroads say. Association of American Railroad officials believe the rule might "impose a financial burden above and beyond what Congress intended," such as by requiring dual-displays in locomotives that alone could cost $200 million.
For now, railroads are working jointly and alone to develop their systems and implementation plans. Through an interoperability committee, the roads already agreed to deploy onboard systems developed by Wabtec Corp., as well as radio systems that would operate on the 220 MHz spectrum and be based on a design by BNSF subsidiary MeteorComm.
Each railroad is developing a vital overlay or non-vital signal system that's branded as ACSES (Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System), OTC (Optimized Train Control), CBTM (Communications-Based Train Movement), VTMS (Vital Train Management System), ITCS (Incremental Train Control System), ETMS (Electronic Train Management System) or VPTC (Vital Positive Train Control), among others, and designed by several suppliers, including Wabtec, Alstom, GE Transportation and Ansaldo STS. However, because of interoperability requirements, the formal names are only used internally and no longer differentiate the various systems, railroads say.
"We don't call our system ETMS system anymore, we just call it PTC," says BNSF's Schulze.
The Class I estimates it'll spend about $2 billion to install PTC on 80 percent of its network, depending on the final FRA rule. BNSF will need to install about 10,000 wayside devices and equip 4,000 locomotives with onboard devices, says Assistant VP of Network Control Systems Dave Galassi.
The railroad will begin developing an implementation plan early next year and start installing devices onboard locomotives sometime later in 2010.
BNSF will gain a tad more time because it won't need to have its safety plan approved by the FRA; a plan dating back to 2006 has been grandfathered, says Schulze.
The railroad's largest PTC-related undertaking will be conducting Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping of the entire network, an effort that will take one to two years, he says.
BNSF also plans to conduct more testing of its non-vital signal system on the non-signaled Beardstown Subdivision in Illinois; signaled territory between Oklahoma City, Okla., and Fort Worth, Texas; and the Hettinger Subdivision in North Dakota. In addition, tests will be conducted in tunnels and on various grades, says Schulze.
UP already is performing informal tests on its vital overlay system in the Powder River Basin heading to North Platte, Neb.; South Morrill subdivisions in Nebraska; Boone Sub in Iowa; and Spokane Sub in Washington.
"We have trains go from us to BNSF and back to us, like between Seattle and Portland," says UP AVP of Transportation Systems Jeff Young. "The system has to have all the track data, permanent speed restrictions and other information, and perform seamlessly at normal track speed. That's the challenge of developing a system like this — there's no room for error."
A system might not work from Day One, so railroads will need time to refine their systems, says Young. UP might not have that luxury because it will need to have its safety plan developed by late 2010 or early 2011, then submitted to the FRA for approval. Current regulations allow the FRA up to 180 days to review a safety plan.
"That 180 days will kill us," says Young. "Finding ways to accelerate the approval process is critical."
UP estimates it will spend $1.4 billion to install PTC on about 86 percent of its network, or 27,000 to 28,000 miles. The Class I will need to deploy 16,500 wayside interface units, 6,000 onboard locomotive devices and 975 base station radios, says Young.
Next year, the Class I plans to complete pilot tests in signaled, non-signaled and automatic train control territories, as well as prepare locomotives for onboard devices and replace 3,600 miles of legacy signals with solid-state signals.
NS plans to conduct tests next year, too. The Class I will field-test its vital overlay system in mid- to late 2010, says NS' Schnautz. Since late 2005, the railroad has been piloting its system in non-signaled territory between Charleston and Columbia, S.C., and signaled territory between Columbia and Charlotte, N.C.
NS expects to install PTC "on every region of our railroad," says Schnautz. Currently, NS is working on various software and trying to determine which workers will need to be trained on the technology, depending on the final rule.
Meanwhile, CSX Transportation expects to install its vital overlay system on 80 percent of its network, or 16,000 to 18,000 miles, at a cost of about $750 million, says CSX Technology's Lonegro. The work will involve more than 10,000 wayside locations, more than 170 subdivisions and more than 3,000 locomotives.
Next year, the Class I plans to pilot the system in the Aberdeen and Andrews subdivisions in the Carolinas. Currently, CSXT is working on GIS mapping and wayside requirements.
The "sheer magnitude" of the installations means CSXT will be leaning heavily on suppliers to design and deliver components in a timely fashion, says Lonegro.
So will Kansas City Southern, which expects to spend between $106 million and $120 million to install PTC on about 2,055 track miles. Next year, KCS plans to spend $6 million to $10 million to complete site surveys and Global Positioning System track mapping, equip locomotives and perform other work.
"There is a huge requirement for engineering, construction, field hardware and software installation and upgrade, verification and safety testing, as well as the ongoing requirement for configuration and change management," KCS officials said in an email. "[This] amount of work is absolutely unprecedented and we have no assurance that there is an adequate supply of qualified service providers to meet the required timeframes."
Since the mandate addresses PTC from a risk-based perspective, passenger-rail routes could have been addressed first, with freight-rail lines following several years later so the Class Is could gain extra system-development time, says CSX Technology's Lonegro.
The nation's largest passenger railroad has been addressing PTC since 2000. Amtrak installed ACECS on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) that year and ITCS on a Michigan segment in 2004.
Now, the national intercity passenger railroad expects to spend about $130 million to ensure its PTC systems along the NEC and in Michigan — the only portions of its network that require the technology — are interoperable and comply with the mandate, says COO William Crosbie.
"We've done R&D, worked through many technical issues and worked with the FRA on our systems, so we're comfortable with the 2015 date," he says. "The knowledge of our engineering forces will be critical, like when CTC came in."
MTA Metro-North Railroad officials also believe engineering is key. In August, the railroad — along with MTA Long Island Rail Road — contracted Systra Engineering Inc. to serve as a PTC consultant. In January, the firm will begin design work, a process that could take a year to complete, says Metro-North Director of Communications and Signals Wayne Staley.
Metro-North will spend about $350 million to install PTC on 795 track miles. The railroad plans to deploy a system based on Amtrak's ACSES technology — used on the NEC between New Haven, Conn., and Boston — that would serve as an overlay on an existing cab signal system, says Staley. Metro-North will need to install devices on 700 pieces of equipment, including diesel locomotives and electric multiple units (EMUs), he says.
"We're different than the freights and Amtrak when it comes to onboard devices because we use EMUs," he says. "It's hard to find space on EMUs and we need to find a cabinet for the devices."
Southern California's Metrolink also is trying to get a handle on meeting the mandate. In early 2009, the railroad formed a 50-member engineering team — comprising mostly consultants — in an attempt to catch up to the PTC development level of freight-rail partners BNSF and UP, says Metrolink Director of Engineering and Construction Darrell Maxey. Late last year, the Class Is announced plans to install PTC in the Los Angeles Basin by 2012's end primarily because of the Metrolink/UP train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2008.
Metrolink expects to spend $201 million to deploy PTC on about 90 percent of its system. The system probably will be based on VTMS, "but there's been no formal decision yet," says Maxey.
In January, Metrolink will seek bids for a "vendor integrator" that would help develop an implementation plan and "do the heavy lifting," he says.
For all 30 railroads, there's plenty of heavy lifting to carry out and an extraordinary amount of coordination to execute in six years.
"The year 2015 may sound like an ample opportunity to complete the necessary work, but we believe the deadline is actually quite aggressive and provides little, if any, room for contingency," KCS officials said in their email.
Adds UP's Young: "From a logistical perspective, 2015 doesn't seem possible."
But the law says otherwise. So, over the course of the next few years, the FRA will pour over implementation and safety plans while railroads continue to develop, test and eventually implement their systems.
"We need to balance safety with economics, the timing of the mandate and with the maturity of the technology," says CSX Technology's Lonegro.