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— by Julie Sneider, associate editor
Faced with a December 2015 deadline to implement positive train control (PTC), freight and commuter railroads say they are working as fast as they can to acquire, equip, install and test still-evolving technology that one day will lead to a nationwide crash-prevention safety system — a goal industry officials are committed to. But frustration is building over regulatory uncertainties that railroad leaders say are impeding their ability to get their PTC systems up and running.
No. 1 on railroad execs' list of hurdles? How to proceed with PTC installation despite the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) order to stop installing the necessary signaling antennas. None of the remaining 22,000 antenna structures needed for PTC to operate have been installed as a result of the halt order, which was issued in 2013 after the commission determined it needed more time to develop a historic preservation and tribal review process for the antennas' locations.
Although industry officials have said for the past several years that the federally mandated deadline was unrealistic for a host of reasons, the FCC antenna issue has made it apparent that getting a PTC system up and running by then is practically impossible, as Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and Chief Executive Officer Edward Hamberger testified on Capitol Hill last month. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) also is on record in support of a deadline extension.
"We are caught between a statutory requirement and an unworkable bureaucratic process and don't see a viable path forward to deploy PTC in a timely manner," Hamberger testified on March 6.
And even though the FCC proposed in late January a streamlined evaluation process for the towers' locations, industry officials don't believe it will reduce the excessive delays associated with antenna installation, Hamberger said.
In interviews with Progressive Railroading last month, two Class I executives reiterated concerns about the antenna issue, as well as the time it will take the FRA to certify their systems, as hindrances to PTC implementation efforts.
"We've been in a holding pattern in the seven- to eight-month range, with little or no activity on tower installation," says Eric Hullemeyer, Norfolk Southern Railway's director of advanced train control systems. "I cannot turn up locations that don't have towers."
Adds BNSF Railway Co.'s Vice President of Safety, Training and Operations Support Mark Schulze: "We at BNSF think PTC is achievable and implementable from a technology perspective, but the regulatory issues right now are a challenge."
In the meantime, Class I execs say they're moving ahead with PTC implementation as best they can. NS is proceeding with installation of the necessary hardware on its wayside and in locomotives.
"In 2014, we are readying our back office and testing environments to put the system on locomotives in the field. We will transition from currently lab-only testing of the system, and we will transition to field qualification testing," says Hullemeyer.
NS' big PTC focus this year will be on gaining regulatory certification of the system. The railroad expects to be ready to file its safety plan with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) later this year.
Hullemeyer anticipates the FRA — which will be reviewing other Class Is' plans roughly around the same time — will take the balance of the year to review the railroads' plans, offering comments and requesting additional information. Certification could come sometime in first-quarter 2015. If that timeline sticks, NS could begin deploying — subdivision by subdivision — a certified PTC system by mid-2015, he says.
Meanwhile, BNSF is in various stages of wayside construction, with some subdivisions further along than others, says Dave Galassi, BNSF's assistant vice president of network control systems.
"We are in the process of construction on somewhere close to 30 subdivisions now, and we have completed implementation on two of those subdivisions," Galassi says. "And we are about to go into revenue service on eight more. ... By the end of the year, our plan is to have 28 subdivisions in revenue service."
Over the course of the implementation program, BNSF plans to equip 5,500 to 6,000 locomotives. As of mid-February, about 900 were PTC ready and BNSF officials expected to reach the 2,000 mark by the year's end.
CSX Corp. has 3,600 locomotives that will require PTC equipment. So far, CSX has partially equipped 2,400 locomotives and fully equipped about 350, says Ken Lewis, director of the Class I's PTC team. The railroad is on target to fully equip the fleet according to schedule. Also moving ahead is CSX's track survey, which involved the use of a helicopter-based "fly-mapping" technology to obtain GPS coordinates.
"We've completed fly-mapping our entire railroad and we've processed about three-quarters of that," says Lewis. "We will continue to finish up data processing this year and start building those subdivision files to actually run PTC."
CSX also is in various stages of upgrading signal equipment along 7,500 miles of track. The wayside effort is a big challenge, with a significant amount of work to be completed, Lewis says, noting the FCC antenna issue. CSX has about 1,100 towers left to install.
The railroad "really hit its stride" with its PTC implementation program last year, Lewis says. Still, it's difficult to say where the program will be by 2015's end, he adds. The Class I's goal is to have at least 20 subdivisions in PTC-revenue service demonstration by then. But in addition to the FCC tower uncertainty, it's not yet known how long the FRA will take to certify the Class Is' safety plans once they're filed.
For commuter railroads, the cost of implementing PTC remains the primary challenge, says Julie Minerva, managing director at Manatt Phelps and Phillips, which provides advocacy on behalf of a Midwest commuter railroad client.
The collective cost for the approximately 20 commuter railroads required to implement PTC will total about $2.75 billion, according to APTA. To date, Congress has appropriated only $50 million for implementation for both freight and passenger roads. In his fiscal-year 2015 budget proposal, President Barack Obama called on Congress to provide $825 million to the FRA to help commuter railroads pay for PTC. Whether those dollars will be incorporated into legislation remains to be seen.
"Even if you can work through the technological issues, it is a very expensive system to implement, so without federal funding for this purpose, it is very hard for [commuter railroads] to implement PTC within the federal timeline," says Minerva.
Nevertheless, commuter railroad leaders say they're doing what they can to advance their PTC projects, with one railroad — Metrolink — marking a significant milestone earlier this year. In February, Metrolink became the first transit agency in the United States to launch a revenue service demonstration of I-ETMS® interoperable train-control system on BSNF track. Metrolink now has the capability to operate PTC on specific trains on BNSF territory.
Metrolink officials declared their commitment to implementing PTC ahead of the federal deadline after Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
The law requiring railroads to install the train-to-train collision prevention technology was prompted by the September 2008 train crash in Chatsworth, Calif., when a Union Pacific Railroad train and Metrolink train collided head-on, resulting in 25 fatalities. It was the deadliest accident in Metrolink's history.
As of mid-March, Metrolink was operating PTC in revenue service on three trains daily on BNSF track, says Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson.
"We are working collaboratively with BNSF to make certain our back office service is fully implemented so that we, too, could run positive train control in revenue service delivery on Metrolink track. That is the next step for us," says Johnson.
PTC capability on Metrolink territory is expected to be available later this year, while the entire service area is anticipated to be completed well before the federal deadline. The FRA authorized Metrolink to run PTC on BNSF territory using Wabtec Corp.'s Electronic Train Management System, or I-ETMS, which has been chosen by four Class Is and Amtrak outside of the Northeast Corridor for use in their PTC systems.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) also plans to reach some PTC milestones during 2014 and 2015.
At a minimum, the agency expects to have an Automatic Train Control (ATC) system in place on all SEPTA-owned lines and PTC on some of its lines by the federal deadline, says SEPTA Deputy General Manager Jeffrey Knueppel. For SEPTA, PTC implementation involves installation of an ATC system with an Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) overlay. Ansaldo STS USA is the technology provider.
"We're about 85 percent done with ATC work," says Knueppel, noting that in-house crews are performing that installation. SEPTA Chief Engineering Officer for Communications and Signals Michael Monastero expects 2014 will be "a big year" for the agency's PTC program. Of SEPTA's 230-plus track miles, about 35 percent of the wayside signal construction is completed, and about 30 percent of communications systems construction is finished. The control center construction is 35 percent completed, he says.
In early March, the agency began retrofitting rail cars for PTC technology, and soon will begin testing the vehicles on a "mini PTC track" recently built for that purpose at SEPTA's Frazer Yard shop.
SEPTA also is making progress on a grade-separation project with CSX. In 2013, SEPTA received a $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery V grant for separating passenger- and freight-rail operations along six miles of CSX track that are part of SEPTA's West Trenton Regional Rail Line. The $38 million project is necessary to enable PTC interoperability between the two railroads, as well as help alleviate a capacity issue.
"That project is moving along very, very quickly," says Knueppel. "It's a very exciting development and really speaks volumes to our ability to work things out with CSX and have a solution that was really forward thinking."
Although SEPTA is ahead of many other transit agencies when it comes to PTC, Knueppel's not certain the agency can meet the deadline. The technological complexity, the challenge of completing installation, testing and training on time, plus the regulatory uncertainties all add up to a "photo finish" for SEPTA, he adds.
The chance that Congress will grant a deadline extension remains cloudy. A politically touchy subject, the PTC deadline question became even more sensitive for political leaders in December 2013, when a speeding MTA Metro-North Railroad train derailed on a curve near the Bronx, N.Y., resulting in four fatalities. The National Transportation Safety Board determined early in its investigation that a PTC system would have prevented the accident. After that, some members of Congress re-stated their opposition to a deadline extension.
"It's going to be a very delicate situation," Mannatt Phelps and Phillips' Minerva says of the industry's deadline extension request. "Safety is going to be first. But there's nothing to be gained for having a deadline that no one can meet."
In seeking more time, railroads are not looking to get out of their PTC obligation, says AAR's Hamberger. However, an extension would allow railroads and the FRA to make sure PTC is done right, he told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last month.
"In the meantime, incremental PTC implementation would continue, meaning that more and more of the safety benefits of PTC would be coming on line," he testified.