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Rail News Home PTC

July 2012

Rail News: PTC

Train control in a commuter–rail context: Uncertainty still clouds positive train control implementation efforts


By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor

As more than a dozen U.S. commuter railroads continue to pursue positive train control (PTC) systems to comply with the federal mandate, certainty and uncertainty surround their implementation efforts.

The certainties? Consultants and/or contractors are developing or refining their respective system, and the technology will be in place by the end-of-2015 deadline, commuter railroad leaders and PTC managers say.

As for the uncertainties, suffice it to say they well outnumber the predictabilities. A MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR)/MTA Metro-North Railroad PTC status report issued on May 21 lists nine implementation concerns in separate "schedule," "operating" and "estimated cost/funding " categories:

  • Many PTC subsystems have not been fully developed or tested.
  • A Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) waiver covering full PTC compliance in dark territory has not yet been obtained.
  • A Federal Transit Administration report on PTC systems’ reliability and recommended best practices won’t be complete until about mid-2013, meaning there is insufficient data available to develop "solid achievable standards."
  • Current labor agreements are limiting LIRR’s ability to outsource communications and signal work, particularly skilled PTC labor, and numerous ongoing signal projects are hampering Metro-North’s ability to use its own signal workforce for both the projects and PTC work.
  • Metro-North continues to face challenges in acquiring enough radio spectrum bandwidth.
  • Metro-North still needs to finalize 11 interoperability agreements with Amtrak and freight railroads, and LIRR needs to hammer out two similar pacts.
  • Both Metro-North and LIRR need to significantly modify their Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement Systems (ACSES II) — which are based on Amtrak’s Alstom-developed ACSES solution — to address operating complexities, such as close headways and reliability demands.
  • Both railroads need to assess potential service delays caused by the requirement to reduce speed during system failures and braking algorithms that might stop a train earlier then required.
  • And both railroads are applying significant portions of their 2012-14 capital programs to PTC, impacting efforts to maintain a state of good repair and complete other crucial infrastructure projects.

"These are all very serious concerns," says Metro-North President Howard Permut. "The adaption of the [ACSES II] system to our operating conditions, research and development, and applications all need to be done in an extremely short timeframe."

Nonetheless, commuter railroad leaders and PTC managers continue to plug along with their respective implementations despite not knowing when, or if, all their issues will be resolved. It’s not as if they have a choice: Unless the feds extend the deadline by three or five years — as proposed earlier this year in amendments to various transportation bills — there’s only about three-and-a-half years to complete all the required implementation work.

Overlay in play

For Metro-North, implementation means installing the ACSES II system on 737 miles of track; LIRR will install the system on 440 track miles. The system will function as an overlay to an existing cab signal system with Automatic Speed Control and Automatic Train Control (ATC).

Both railroads plan to hire a contractor/system integrator by year’s end to design and furnish the adapted ACSES II system. In-house forces will be used for right-of-way and rolling stock subsystem/wiring installations.

As of late May, some wayside work launched in October 2011 — mainly interlocking wiring revisions — remained under way, some radio spectrum was purchased, and functional design requirements for onboard, back office, communication system and wayside components had been completed.

A request for proposals for the system integrator was slated for release by June’s end and a system pilot — involving the procurement and installation of PTC equipment on specified track segments to test back office, wayside and onboard systems — was scheduled to begin in 2013.

Metro-North’s limited number of signal forces, which will be greatly impacted by retirements over the next few years, will make implementation a challenge, says Permut. As of last month, the railroad had 267 union-represented and 40 management signal employees.

Metro-North also has approved capital funding of $227.1 million for PTC in the overall 2012-14 program, but the current "estimate at completion" (without any contingency for a finalized risk assessment) is $285 million. So far, the railroad has received only $5 million in federal funding assistance, so the funding gap needs to be addressed, says Permut. The most likely solution: deferring other needed infrastructure projects, such as shop, bridge, signal and electrical substation projects.

"We have no capital plan [yet] after 2014, so these projects could be deferred several years, or worst-case, deferred indefinitely," says Permut.

Moreover, Metro-North already is spending more than $100 million to install cab signaling on nearly all lines, he says. When the project is completed in about two years, ATC will be installed system-wide except for one lightly used line.

"Cab signaling [already] provides a high level of safety," says Permut.

From ATC to PTC

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Assistant General Manager and Chief Engineer Jeff Knueppel agrees. The agency has spent $150 million to install ATC and expects to spend another $150 million to install its PTC system — which also is based on Amtrak’s ACSES II solution — on about 220 track miles.

"There’s only an incremental [safety] difference going from ATC to PTC," says Knueppel. "It’s not as much of a difference as going from wayside signals to PTC."

Like Metro-North, SEPTA expects to delay some critical projects because of PTC’s price tag.

"Next year, we won’t have a single substation or bridge project under construction, and we usually have one or both every year," says Knueppel.

Yet, the mandate to implement PTC means SEPTA must march on, he says. The agency has hired Ansaldo STS under a $98.7 million contract to handle ACSES II-related work, which involves PTC equipment on passenger cars and communications tasks.

SEPTA is working on four fronts simultaneously: vehicles, a control center piece, communications and the existing signal system, says Knueppel, adding that all four elements need to be integrated.

"We can’t have any problems with one of the four. We’re giving it our best shot," he says. "But given economic conditions, we’re very concerned. We’re putting all our eggs in one basket when there are other safety issues and problems at SEPTA."

A systematic approach

New Jersey Transit is giving implementation the old college try, too. The railroad, which also is basing its system on Amtrak’s ACSES solution, expects to install PTC on its 10 commuter-rail lines, or about 320 route miles in total, at a cost of $225 million to $250 million.

NJ Transit has hired Parsons under a turnkey contract for full system implementation, including wayside, office and onboard hardware. Alstom serves as a subcontractor to Parsons for the project.

System testing should begin in 2013, with a roll-out occurring in 2014 and 2015, says John Batey, NJ Transit’s program manager-positive train control. The system is slated to be factory designed by mid-2013 to begin in-plant tests to see "if it works as intended," he says.

It will need to be interoperable with an I-ETMS system to be used by several freight railroads, primarily Norfolk Southern Railway and Conrail, and work well with Amtrak’s system — a task made easier because it’s an ACSES-based solution, says NJ Transit Director of Systems Engineering and Design Paul Stangas.

However, a delay in acquiring the necessary spectrum — the project’s most complicated and difficult aspect, says Stangas — means any system functionality associated with radios likely won’t be used right away at 2015’s end.

"We believe we will be close to fully implementing it by 2015, but it won’t be fully functional by then," says Stangas. "It may be 60 percent to 70 percent as stipulated in the plan."

Although a deadline extension likely would benefit most commuter railroads, it would be of little use to NJ Transit and its implementation challenges since a contract already is in place with deadlines built into it, he says.

An extension wouldn’t help Metrolink, either. The southern California agency long has attempted to become the first commuter railroad to install PTC by getting a system in place by 2012’s end.

The railroad plans to install PTC on the 216-mile, publicly owned portion of its seven-line network, and a total of about 512 miles of track in conjunction with BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad. Under a $120 million contract obtained in October 2010, Parsons Transportation Group will design, procure, install, test and start up the system.

But the timeline has changed. The system now is projected to enter revenue service in September 2013, says Metrolink Director of Engineering and Construction Darrell Maxey.

The nine-month push-back was caused by several factors, he says: the interoperable requirements associated with the freight railroads’ I-ETMS system are being developed at a slower-than-expected rate; the pace of developing required 220 MHz radios has slipped; and both the development of a back-office server and acquisition of radio spectrum is taking longer than initially anticipated.

In addition, as part of the PTC work, ARINC Inc. is replacing a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. But the CAD work has been delayed by six to nine months, says Maxey.

"The good news is that the new CAD system will be PTC-compliant," he says.

Installation times two

Meanwhile, engineering and design work continues for the Utah Transit Authority’s (UTA) PTC system. UTA plans to install PTC on 45 miles of existing FrontRunner commuter-rail track to the north as well as on 45 miles of track UTA is building to the south from Salt Lake City to Provo.

Since 2008, the authority has used a GE Transportation "carborne" system to help prevent train-to-train collisions and overspeed derailments. UTA will need supplemental systems to cover PTC requirements involving accident prevention in work zones and proper switch-position movements.

In the north system, where UTA has seven miles of jointly used track with UP, two locomotives and cab cars will feature I-ETMS capability; in the upcoming southern extension, UTA plans to install an Alstom system.

PTC work will begin in the south first because the extension isn’t in service yet and the system can be implemented in time, says UTA Senior Program Manager Todd Provost. Implementation still is projected to cost $20 million.

"We had hoped for funding help from the FRA, but that isn’t panning out," says Provost. "It will be a $20 million local hit, most likely."

Meeting the deadline in the north system, an active and single-track passenger corridor, will be tough, Provost says. An extension would greatly benefit UTA, he believes.

"We would have more time for development and more time to work bugs out," says Provost. "We also would have more time to identify resources and funding."

Whether commuter roads obtain more time for implementation or find solutions for some or all of their issues in the near future remains to be seen.


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