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If you’re thinking about purchasing a Cadillac, chances are you’re wondering if the car’s smooth ride, elbow room and other features justify the cost. But you’re probably not considering a test drive to make sure the seat belts, air bags or anti-lock brakes work properly.
Many North American railroad officials are analyzing positive train control (PTC) in the same cost vs. benefits manner. They’re determining if the safety and operational efficiency benefits they would derive from the technology outweigh the upfront costs.
But after testing PTC for nearly a decade, they’re no longer evaluating the technology just to ensure the systems enforce speed limits and stop trains as designed.
All seven Class Is are beginning to deploy PTC or conducting pilots with the intention of deploying systems within the next several years, PTC supplier say. Ditto for several regionals, short lines and passenger railroads.
“It’s still tire-kicking time, but railroads are kicking the tires harder and more times,” says Steve Graham, vice president of marketing and head of train-control business development for Wabtec Railway Electronics, which markets the Electronic Train Management System (ETMS®). “Railroads know the technology is a given [and] we’ll see deployments at a faster rate.”
But only as fast as Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requirements will allow. In March 2005, the administration issued new PTC standards — the first revision to federal signal and train control regulations since 1984 — which establish minimum performance requirements and mandate that PTC systems meet or exceed conventional wayside signal systems’ safety level.
It’s taking months for railroads to obtain FRA approval, which is slowing tests and deployments. In addition, the requirements are raising questions about which system best meets the federal mandate, suppliers say.
Alaska Railroad Corp. (ARRC) and Union Switch & Signal Inc. (US&S) officials are seeking FRA approval to begin testing a “vital” PTC system — the first to be installed in dark territory.
Of vital importance
Vital systems are designed to fail safe under any circumstances and issue electronic authorities. A non-vital overlay of an existing wayside or cab signaling system usually requires at least one verbal command before a track warrant authority is issued, increasing the risk of miscommunication between workers.
“The main advantage is you don’t have to take an authority, write it down and repeat it to the dispatch office,” says Eileen Reilly, ARRC’s VP of projects, engineering, technology and signals. “And you know the authority is valid.”
The new FRA requirements are prompting railroads to look at vital systems in a different light, says US&S Project Manager for Alaska PTC Brian Kornish.
“There are benefits and risks to computer commands vs. verbal commands, and it’s easier to prove a vital system is safer than a non-vital system,” he says.
US&S will extend ARRC’s computer-aided dispatching (CAD) system that monitors train location — which the supplier finished installing in May — and install computers on board more than 60 locomotives to support electronic
Pending FRA approval — which could come early next year — ARRC will begin testing the vital system in November 2007 and complete implementation in spring 2008.
As budgeted funds become available, ARRC will further enhance the PTC system to monitor switch position in dark territory and electronically trace maintenance-of-way equipment location, says Reilly.
Switch for the better
At Quantum Engineering Inc., officials are working with the Panama Canal Railway Co. to install electrified wayside switches so a dispatcher can monitor switch positions and align switches via telemetry commands.
Next month, the company will install a vital switch interlocking — which will be controlled by the Engesis Advanced
Control of Trains (ACT) CAD system and interfaced with Quantum’s Train Sentinel® Positive Train Control system — on two wayside switches at a main passing siding. Later in the first quarter, Quantum expects to install interlockings on two additional switches at a new passing siding.
“The switch will put out a signal stating the switch position and locked status,” says Quantum President Mark Kane. “If it’s in the wrong position or there’s no message from a switch, the Train Sentinel system will stop the train.”
In April, the Panama Canal Railway began using Train Sentinel, which through an onboard computer and location data provided by a Global Positioning System (GPS) alerts crews to approaching restrictions, authority limits, “Form B” restrictions, opposing traffic and other data. The system stops a train if workers fail to respond appropriately or the system detects hazardous operations.
A ‘quantum’ leap
By mid-2007, Quantum expects to complete its first U.S. installation. The company recently obtained a contract from the Ohio Central Railroad System to install Train Sentinel and a CAD system on its southern — and busiest — division comprising about 350 track miles and four subdivisions in Ohio and a portion of Pennsylvania. Ohio Central operates 10 short lines, five of which will use the systems to monitor track warrants and issue electronic authorities.
Quantum plans to install the dispatching system in the first quarter and Train Sentinel in the second quarter, pending FRA approval, says Kane.
“Ohio Central has a manual, paper dispatching system now and operates 20 to 25 trains a day in the division,” he says. “We are confident that we can improve their throughput by 30 to 40 percent.”
Wabtec Railway Electronics officials also are gearing up for new installations, including the deployment of ETMS® on a second BNSF Railway Co. line. The railroad has been using the system on a 135-mile corridor between Centralia and Beardstown, Ill., since field testing began in first-quarter 2004.
Now, the Class I plans to install ETMS on 323 track miles in its Red Rock and Fort Worth subdivisions between Fort Worth, Texas, and Arkansas City, Kan., sometime next year, pending the FRA’s approval of a product safety plan. ETMS is designed to monitor and relay movement-related information — such as authority and speed limits — through a digital communications network and GPS satellite, and display data, commands and a moving map on a computer screen inside a locomotive cab. The system automatically initiates braking if an engineer doesn’t appropriately respond to movement and speed-limit warnings.
“It’ll be an overlay like Beardstown, but the difference is the two subdivisions have heavier traffic than Beardstown and include passenger trains,” says Wabtec’s Graham. “BNSF sees this installation as the beginning [of ETMS] for the rest of its system.”
Union Pacific Railroad is just getting started with an ETMS-related system. In April, the Class I contracted Wabtec to develop a communications-based train control system based on ETMS.
In summer 2007, UP expects to begin testing the system on lines totaling 333 track miles between North Platte and South Morrill, Neb., and Spokane, Wash., and Eastport, Idaho.
As part of the pilot, UP will test the interoperability of the system with BNSF’s ETMS and Canadian Pacific Railway will install computers onboard 15 locomotives UP dispatches for CPR in the Pacific Northwest.
The lines — which include cab signaling and centralized traffic control systems, and dark territory — will provide a good model for potential train-control tests and deployments in other network areas, says UP Assistant VP of Transportation Systems Jeff Young.
Although collision avoidance is the railroad’s No. 1 objective, the system also will help reduce fuel consumption, he says.
“It’s not just about how to stop a train but how to accelerate a train, and do a better job with energy management,” says Young.
The Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp. (Metra) is getting ready to deploy ETMS, too. Last month, the railroad contracted Wabtec to install the system on 24 locomotives and 24 passenger cars operating on the Rock Island line. Metra plans to install the systems in early 2007, test ETMS in late 2007 and begin using the technology in 2008.
“Other commuter railroads are seriously looking at ETMS,” says Graham.
Hesitation about high speed
However, after nearly six years of testing, a PTC system jointly developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. in conjunction with Wabtec and US&S for the North American Joint Positive Train Control Project (NAJPTC) has raised doubts about the system’s effectiveness for another passenger-rail segment. Governed by the FRA, Association of American Railroads (AAR) and Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), NAJPTC involves a PTC system installed on a 120-mile segment of UP-owned track along Amtrak’s Chicago-to-St. Louis high-speed rail corridor.
“As the project developed, it became clear to all the parties that the technology was more suited for freight operations than for high-speed passenger operations, at least in the near term,” said AAR spokesman Tom White in a written statement, adding that IDOT’s continued participation in NAJPTC is under review and project participants declined further comment. “The Illinois tests have identified a number of implementation issues from which valuable lessons have been learned and solutions developed.”
So far, GE - Transportation’s Incremental Train Control System (ITCS) has been Amtrak’s solution for safely operating passenger trains between 90 mph and 95 mph along a 45-mile stretch of the railroad’s Chicago-to-Detroit corridor in Michigan.
For the past six years, Amtrak has used ITCS as an overlay to an existing block signaling system to improve communication between trains and wayside or station-based control for vital interlocking, switch positioning, crossing activation and health monitoring. ITCS won’t allow an engineer to go 2 mph over a speed limit and calibrates the speedometer every 30 seconds.
Now, Amtrak plans to extend ITCS another 20 track miles in Michigan sometime in early 2007. The railroad might eventually extend the system all the way to Chicago and Detroit, but accessing other railroads’ tracks will be an issue, says ITCS Product Manager Jeff Baker.
Amtrak also plans to petition the FRA to operate trains on ITCS-enabled lines at speeds up to 110 mph.
Sorting it all out
Although Amtrak has derived safety and operational efficiency benefits from ITCS, many railroads still aren’t convinced PTC’s advantages justify its price tag. And interoperability remains a concern.
“Some railroads figure there are other projects they can be doing to improve safety and reliability,” says Baker.
But suppliers believe more railroads will adopt PTC after they sort out costs and benefits.
“In the near term, railroads will find the sweet spot with the technology and apply it where it makes sense, like in high-risk areas and where they can gain incremental efficiencies,” says US&S’ Kornish.