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Rail News: Positive Train Control

PTC, crude by rail were hot rail safety topics at House subcommittee hearing

The likelihood that U.S. railroads will meet the federally mandated end-of-2015 deadline to install positive train control (PTC) systems now has "become impossible," said Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hamberger during his testimony yesterday at a House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials hearing on rail safety oversight.

Railroads' implementation efforts have been delayed by the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) proposed regulatory process for reviewing each of the more than 22,000 antennas needed to make PTC function correctly, he said. The proposed FCC process calls for railroads to obtain individual antenna installation reviews by state historic preservation officers and Native American tribes.

Given that such applications can take three to five months to complete at a single location, and that the FCC placed a moratorium on installing towers for eight months, railroads will not meet the deadline, said Hamberger.

According to the FCC, exceptions will be made for a certain number of commuter railroads to proceed with tower construction on a case-by-case basis depending on the number of antennas needed, but the ad hoc process has led to confusion in the commuter-rail industry regarding who is excepted and for what reason, said American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy during his testimony at the hearing.

"While smaller commuter railroads will certainly have a significantly lower amount of towers that need to be constructed, other commuter railroads will be required to install a significant number of towers and no clarity has been provided by the FCC on the exact threshold of allowance for proceeding with their process," he said.

In addition to the FCC obstacle, the availability of radio spectrum and number of components that still largely are under development likely means commuter railroads' full PTC implementation by the deadline will be impeded, even for those railroads that have secured the necessary funding, said Melaniphy.

Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo concurred that the mandated deadline likely won't be reached by many railroads.

"Commuter rail operations are cash-strapped and unable to attain certain necessities for implementation, such as communications spectrum. The FRA’s budget proposes grants for those commuter railroads and research and development for new technologies to improve rail safety," he said during his testimony.
The FRA’s August 2012 report to Congress summarized the major technical and programmatic challenges and obstacles associated with PTC implementation, and since then, the new issue regarding communications towers deployment arose under the FCC's jurisdiction, said Szabo.

Nevertheless, freight and commuter railroads should implement PTC in a timely fashion, said Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen Vice President and National Legislative Representative John Tolman during his testimony. Although some railroads have lobbied for a deadline extension, the union is against a blanket extension that would delay implementation, he said.

"The railroads will have had over seven years from the time the legislation was passed until it is supposed to be fully implemented at the end of next year … [providing] ample time to prepare for the implementation of PTC," said Tolman. "However, since it was mandated, the railroads have used a seemingly never-ending series of excuses for delaying the implementation of this life saving technology, and while there are challenges to its implementation, we believe that these could have been averted by more forward thinking by the railroads.”

Also during the hearing, Hamberger shared freight railroads' recent efforts to improve overall safety, including haz-mat safety. Railroads have invested $550 billion since 1980, including a record $25.5 billion in each of the past two years, which has helped improve rail infrastructure, add state-of-the-art technology and reduce train accidents, he said.

Hamberger also described  the rail industry’s latest safety initiative announced last week in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) that involves a series of voluntary operating practices for safer crude-by-rail shipments. The practices include new routing procedures for crude trains, speed restrictions in certain urban areas, leveraging braking technology, increased track inspections and additional training resources for local emergency responders.

“There is no doubt that the surge in domestic oil production benefits our nation’s economy and consumers, and we’re committed to safely delivering for communities across the country,” said Hamberger. “This will be a true team effort involving shared responsibility among everyone involved in crude oil production, delivery and consumption.”

However, the initiative doesn't go far enough to protect New York communities along lines used to transport crude, said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a press release issued yesterday. The standards are a good first step, but the agreement needs to be strengthened and can only serve as an interim measure while the USDOT finalizes rules for the permanent phase-out and replacement of DOT-111 tank cars, he said.

The initiative should include a phase out of DOT-111 cars on New York tracks and provide a specific plan to do so no later than July 1, Schumer believes. In addition, a speed limit change from 50 mph to 40 mph should not only be applied in an exclusive area involving just Buffalo and New York City, he said. CSX Transportation and Canadian Pacific trains that transport crude oil in the state run through every major urban center in Upstate New York, including Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and Albany, said Schumer.

"If these speed limits were intended to mitigate risk in densely populated areas with a high volume of traffic, then these other Upstate cities and locations throughout New York should be reviewed and considered for inclusion, based on population and volume of crude-oil traffic," he said.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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