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By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
It's no secret that the federally mandated end-of-2015 deadline to implement positive train control (PTC) is unattainable for most passenger railroads. In fact, the only passenger roads projected to meet it are Amtrak, Metrolink and the Alaska Railroad Corp., which operates both passenger and freight service.
Passenger-rail leaders and PTC managers say several challenges are making it tough for their agencies to meet the deadline, but they're plowing ahead to get as much done as they can by Dec. 31, 2015.
They cite funding, still-evolving technology, ongoing negotiations over interoperability agreements with Class Is, the need to acquire the necessary 220 MHz radio spectrum, and the relatively small number of PTC vendors and service suppliers as the primary barriers. Both the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and Association of American Railroads (AAR) have expressed the industry's concerns to Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Transportation Safety Board, as well as other agencies.
Commuter railroad chief executives discussed their PTC concerns at length at an APTA meeting in March, says Rob Healy, APTA's vice president of government affairs. As they have for the past several years, APTA leaders are continuing to ask Congress for a deadline extension to Dec. 31, 2018, he says.
In addition, they're seeking federal dollars to help cover the estimated $2 billion cost to implement PTC on passenger railroads, as well as for the FRA resources needed to review and authorize PTC systems. Passenger roads also want to be allowed to consider "alternative risk" technology on specific line segments, and for the FCC to provide radio spectrum for PTC implementation free of charge.
"Basically, we need more time, we'd like some money and we'd like some help with the spectrum," says Healy.
Regardless of what Congress may do, passenger railroads will continue to try to make headway with their PTC plans, industry leaders say. They agree with the ultimate goal of PTC, which is to prevent train-to-train collisions like the deadly September 2008 accident in Chatsworth, Calif., when a Union Pacific Railroad train collided with a Metrolink train. The accident prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Act of 2008, which required many passenger and freight railroads to install PTC.
Metrolink remains fully committed to implementing PTC ahead of the mandated deadline, says Darrell Maxey, director of PTC, communication and signal systems at the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA), which operates Metrolink.
In September 2012, Metrolink unveiled its first fully equipped PTC test train. This year, the agency expects to have the San Gabriel subdivision in revenue demonstration testing by the end of September, the remaining subdivisions tested by year's end or January 2014, and the whole system in revenue demonstration testing — and all cab cars tested and equipped — by January or February 2014, Maxey says.
Separately, but concurrently, Metrolink needs to complete its PTC certification process and anticipates submitting all of the required paperwork to the FRA by September. Maxey hopes the certification process will be completed by late first quarter or early second quarter in 2014.
Over the past nine months, Metrolink has completed wayside construction; equipped 25 percent of its locomotives with onboard devices; completed the geographic database; and tested 80 percent of critical features, such as signals, switches and clearance points, and grade crossings. The testing should be done by mid-summer.
Metrolink also has completed about three-quarters of necessary signal verification validation on the San Gabriel subdivision, and is testing its regional radio network. Installation of the PTC radio station has begun on Metrolink's six tunnels and should be completed by August, he says. This summer, the railroad plans to perform lab tests on its CAD system.
Maxey estimates about 800 staff and contractors will be trained on the PTC system. Also this year, the railroad will test the braking systems, which will be performed on its longest trainset and at its steepest grade, then perform integrated testing on the entire system, including the communication network.
The entire PTC project's cost has been estimated at $210 million, and Metrolink had spent about 62 percent of that amount as of May, Maxey says. Funding will come from a combination of state, federal and local sources.
While Metrolink is aiming for completion next year, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) officials are anticipating a "photo finish" with implementation, says Michael Monastero, SEPTA's chief engineering officer, communication and signals, adding that the agency's PTC program is about 25 percent complete.
"We are well along our way to outfitting our  vehicles, which was always our first milestone and biggest issue," he says.
Regarding the installation of wayside devices along 230 track miles, the agency is about 60 percent complete with design, while wayside construction on SEPTA's airport line is about 30 percent finished. In addition, data communications design is about 25 percent done and lab testing of the prototype system was slated to begin in late May. Work on remote control centers is about 25 percent finished.
SEPTA already has spent about $150 million to install an automatic train control system and expects to invest another $150 million to install its PTC system, which will be based on Amtrak's ACSES II system. However, a major issue yet to be resolved is interoperability along a six-mile segment of CSX Transportation track used by SEPTA. The segment, where SEPTA terminates a line into New Jersey over the Delaware River, is a major north-south CSX route.
As a solution, SEPTA and CSX officials have come up with a plan to separate their operations over the six-mile segment. As of press time, SEPTA was preparing to apply for a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant that would fund all or part of the cost to build a third track along the stretch that would separate passenger and freight operations, says SEPTA Deputy General Manager Jeffrey Knueppel. That portion of the project would cost SEPTA $29 million and CSX, $10 million.
"We'll basically be adding a third track for most of the distance, and we'll be dealing not just with PTC, but with a capacity issue that's been going on in that territory," Knueppel says. "CSX is the owner and we are the tenant, but I have to commend them on how they are working with us on what could be a solution for everybody."
Coordinating with Class Is to ensure interoperability also has been a priority for the Chicago area's Metra, which is responsible for implementing PTC on about half of its 1,000 track miles. The other half will be implemented by BNSF Railway Co., Union Pacific Railroad and CN, says Metra Chief Engineering Officer Joe Lorenzini.
Metra has begun hiring mechanical department employees who will install PTC equipment on rolling stock, and has started purchasing the equipment, he says.
"We are gearing up to install the equipment on the BSNF and on the UP first," says Lorenzini. "Then we'll start installing the PTC equipment that runs on our lines."
Also, Metra is negotiating a contract with an engineering firm that will oversee the entire PTC implementation process. The agency is developing plans and specifications for hiring a system integrator that will determine the supply of communications equipment and ensure communications systems function properly between wayside equipment, rolling stock and the back-office server, says Lorenzini.
He anticipates the majority of Metra's PTC contracts to be let by year's end and the balance by 2014's end. Metra estimates its implementation costs at $226 million.
MTA Metro-North Railroad is seeking a PTC system integrator for it and MTA Long Island Rail Road, says Wayne Staley, Metro-North's executive director for PTC.
Once chosen, the system integrator will focus on implementing a pilot PTC program on specific track segments — along five route miles on the Hudson Line and about 12 miles on the New Haven Line — to test back office, wayside and onboard systems, Staley says.
While Metro-North officials don't believe the railroad will have PTC entirely implemented by the mandated deadline, "we hope to be down the road a good piece by getting our pilot done by 2015," he says.
Metro-North is designing its ACSES II PTC system, which will be installed on 737 miles of track, as an overlay onto an existing cab signal system. Metro-North officials have estimated PTC costs at $350 million, according to a November 2012 press release.
New Jersey Transit is basing its PTC system on the ACSES solution, as well. The agency plans to install PTC equipment on 322 track miles and 500 cab cars and locomotives at an estimated cost of $225 million, says Paul Stangas, NJ Transit's director of systems engineering and design.
"We've had contractor personnel inspecting our vehicles, developing designs and reviewing technology to see what modifications are necessary to install the onboard equipment," Stangas says.
In addition, the railroad has partially completed a field survey of its lines and right of way to determine the installation requirements, signal and communication design modifications, and changes and added technology that will be required for the rail operations center.
Meeting the current PTC deadline is unlikely, especially since NJ Transit, along with many other railroads, has yet to acquire the necessary radio spectrum, says Stangas.
"We expect we'll get PTC 40 to 50 percent done by 2015," he says. "What Congress or the FRA does [about a possible deadline extension] is hard to speculate on. We can only hope that we will get some kind of mechanism for relief because everyone is pretty much in the same boat."
Being in the same boat recently prompted three Texas commuter-rail agencies — the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T), Denton County Transportation Authority (DCTA) and Trinity Rail Express (TRE), which is jointly owned by The T and Dallas Area Rapid Transit — to work together on developing a regional PTC system.
Each agency hired PTC oversight consultants, who helped the agencies define what the regional approach should be, says TRE Director Norma Navarro. TRE shares a 34-mile corridor with four freight railroads, including BNSF and UP. DCTA will need to implement PTC along a 21-mile corridor.
"We have met with vendors to make sure the regional concept is feasible, so now we are moving forward to write specifications for implementing the concept for the PTC system," Navarro says. "Once that is done, we will put out a request for proposals."
The three entities also have to file an edited implementation plan with the FRA, she adds.
"We will get our biggest bang during the operations and maintenance of the system, because we will have one common back office that we have to maintain, we'll have common parts on the equipment and along the wayside, and we'll have one provider that will maintain the system for us," Navarro says.
Navarro joins other commuter-railroad executives in hoping Congress will address their concerns over PTC before 2015's end.
APTA's Healy anticipates at least some concerns — a deadline extension, in particular — to be discussed when lawmakers take up expected rail legislation this year. Both the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which authorizes Amtrak, and the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 expire this year.
"There is recognition [in Congress] that the commuter railroads and freight industry are making good-faith efforts to move this stuff ahead," Healy says. "Certainly, the funding will be a challenge, but we will ask for it in the context of an authorization bill and we will work for it through appropriations legislation."