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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
The months-long wait for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to issue a final implementation rule on positive train control (PTC) ended for U.S. railroads on Jan. 12. Now, the 30 roads affected by the federal PTC mandate — including the Class Is, Amtrak and 22 commuter railroads — have a few months to pore over the rule and ensure their implementation plans comply before they submit them to the FRA by the April 16 deadline.
The final rule governs PTC implementation on major U.S. freight-rail lines, as well as commuter and intercity passenger-rail routes. PTC systems, which feature digital radio links, global positioning systems and wayside computer control systems, are designed to help dispatchers and train crews safely manage train movements.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandates that interoperable PTC systems be installed on most passenger-rail routes and lines used to move certain hazardous materials by 2015's end. Closed passenger-rail systems, such as light-rail, rapid transit and subway systems, will not be required to adopt PTC.
The final rule builds on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that the FRA issued in July 2009. The rule specifies PTC systems' required functionalities, including interoperability; the means by which the systems will be certified; the contents of implementation plans required by the statute; and the process for submitting implementation plans to the FRA for review and approval.
For example, the rule stipulates that railroads must provide separate onboard screens for the engineer and conductor so each crew member in the locomotive cab can receive the same PTC information displayed in the same manner.
"The FRA pushed aside railroad arguments against requiring a separate PTC screen display for each crew member in a cab," said United Transportation Union officials in a news item posted on the union's Web site on Jan. 13.
The result of more than a decade of work by the FRA and various stakeholders, in partnership with the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee, the final rule serves as the "end of the beginning of the process" for PTC, FRA officials said during a media teleconference held Jan. 12.
The FRA estimates it will collectively cost the railroads about $5.5 billion to install PTC on 69,000 miles of track, including onboard components for 30,000 rail vehicles. In addition, railroads will spend about $820 million annually to maintain and refurbish the systems.
The high price tag will force railroads to forego major capital expenditures in critical areas over the five-plus-year period, said Norfolk Southern Corp. Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Wick Moorman during an earnings conference held Jan. 27.
"And the result may well be less capacity than is required to handle traffic volumes, a diminished ability to provide good service, and even possibly a less-safe working environment than we might have had otherwise," he said.
As of press time, railroads continued to review the final rule and declined to comment until they had more time to examine the 475-page document. Ditto for the Association of American Railroads (AAR).
"We plan to issue a detailed response to the rule at a later time," AAR officials said in a prepared statement issued on Jan. 14.
One part of the final rule they're apt to review is various exceptions granted to Class II and III railroads. For example, the rule enables regionals and short lines to operate non-PTC-controlled locomotives for up to four origin-destination movements daily and for trip distances up to 20 miles on PTC-equipped lines.
Until Dec. 31, 2020, those locomotives also will be permitted on PTC-equipped lines for more than 20 miles; afterwards, regionals and short lines must install PTC devices on locomotives to operate them more than 20 miles on PTC-equipped lines.
In August 2009, the AAR objected to the FRA's proposal to allow Class IIs and IIIs to operate non-PTC-controlled locomotives on PTC-equipped lines. The association disputed the FRA's claim that the financial burden on small railroads would outweigh safety benefits.
"Surely Congress did not require Class Is to spend billions of dollars on PTC systems only to allow Class II and III railroads to operate trains without the technology on our tracks equipped with PTC," AAR officials said at the time.
The FRA will accept additional comments on a few specific provisions of the final rule until March 12 to determine "whether clarity can be improved, and whether further opportunities for cost savings, consistent with safety, are available," according to the agency.
The AAR plans to "continue to participate in the rulemaking process," association officials said in the Jan. 14 statement.