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Rail News Home PTC

November 2008

Rail News: PTC

Four Class Is Forge Pact to Set Standards for PTC Systems


By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor

It’s an understatement to say that last month’s enactment of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and September’s Metrolink/Union Pacific Railroad train collision have had a major impact on railroads’ positive train control (PTC) adoption plans. But the new law and recent accident had only a negligible effect on the timing and provisions of a PTC interoperability agreement four Class Is finalized last month.

UP, BNSF Railway Co. and Norfolk Southern Corp. had been working on the pact for more than nine months, and had already negotiated common PTC protocols and standards — or 95 percent of the agreement — prior to the bill’s enactment and collision’s fallout, says BNSF Vice President of Safety, Training and Operations Support Mark Schulze. The recent events only accelerated a radio spectrum utilization agreement, he says.

Under the interoperability pact — which CSX Corp. also agreed to abide by last month — the Class Is will install wayside PTC systems that operate at a 220 MHz radio frequency. The large roads also will use a common onboard system featuring locomotive cab computers and back-office monitors that identically display data.

“The systems all will look and behave the same way,” says UP Assistant VP of Transportation System Development Jeff Young.

However, there are three major interoperability hurdles to clear: developing the system (“There isn’t one we can all get and turn on,” says Schulze), financing it and getting commuter railroads that share track with the Class Is to adopt it.

Back to the Drawing Board

The Class Is last month addressed the first obstacle by contracting BNSF subsidiary Meteor Communications Corp. to develop the Higher Performance Data Radio, which will integrate voice and digital data, and support line-of-road communication for the interoperable system. The large roads expect the company to complete development in nine to 12 months.

The Class Is also agreed that Wabtec Railway Electronics, which developed BNSF’s Electronic Train Management System (ETMS), UP’s Vital Train Management System (VTMS) and NS’ Optimized Train Control, will provide the onboard platform. Testing might begin in second-quarter 2009.

Installation costs for the large roads — including Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway, which will need to install the new PTC system on their U.S. lines to be interoperable with their American counterparts — and commuter railroads might exceed $3 billion, Class I execs believe. CSX estimates its own price tag at $500 million, while UP projects it will spend between $700 million and $1 billion to install about 20,000 wayside devices and 6,000 onboard systems.

“We haven’t determined how we’re going to pay for it,” says Young.

UP execs will need to figure it out soon. The rail safety law requires railroads to install PTC on all lines used to move toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials — or virtually all core mainlines, says Young — by 2015.

A law provision provides each railroad $50 million annually for five years, but “that’s a drop in the bucket,” says Schulze, adding that the monies target the adoption of all technologies, including ECP brakes.

In addition, the freight-rail tax credit Class Is are seeking in Congress might apply toward PTC installation costs, NS execs believe.

The Wheres and Whens

For now, the large roads are formulating implementation plans. Last month, BNSF and UP announced they’ll implement PTC in the Los Angeles Basin area by 2012, or slightly ahead of schedule because of the new law, Schulze and Young say.

However, BNSF’s deployment plans have been slightly slowed, perhaps by one or two years, because of the interoperable agreement, says Schulze. The Class I had been developing ETMS for several years.

“We already had a system in place and were ready to deploy,” says Schulze.

Meanwhile, UP will continue to conduct VTMS pilots on lines running through Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, and through Idaho and Washington through 2009. The railroad then will seek Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) approval in 2010 to begin deploying the system.

The lines are in dark, cab signal, Centralized Traffic Control and Automatic Train Control territories.

“We won’t have to go back to the FRA each time we want to deploy the system in a different territory,” says Young.

Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor


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