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ModesNewsRailroad

Positive train control interoperability still far from a reality

Only 17 percent of the relationships between the U.S. passenger and freight railroads required to utilize positive train control (PTC) technology have interoperability, meaning that the host railroad can communicate with a non-host train through the technology, according to data released by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

The FRA has been tracking the implementation progress of PTC, a mandated technology that enables railroads to keep track of the trains on their networks as a way to prevent accidents and collisions.

The Class I railroads, Amtrak, commuter rail lines and a few other railroads must install the technology on the infrastructure of their main lines as well as on the trains themselves. The FRA publishes a quarterly implementation status update so that the railroads can keep up with fully installing PTC on their networks before the mandated deadline of December 31, 2020.

The most recent update that outlines implementation progress through the end of the first quarter is available here. A total of 41 railroads must comply with the mandate, which Congress implemented as part of the Rail Safety Act of 2008.

Besides installing the technology in their networks, the railroads must ensure that PTC enables interoperability, or the ability of a PTC-equipped train to send and receive signals on another company’s network. The host railroad network must also have the ability to send and receive signals from trains that don’t belong to the host railroad.

As of the first quarter that ended on March 31, 38 of the 227 relationships, or 17 percent, between host and tenant railroads required to have PTC achieved interoperability. A tenant railroad is a company that has a train running on a host railroad’s track or property.

The Class I rail network that is required to have PTC is 16 percent interoperable with tenant railroads, as of the end of the first quarter. BNSF’s (NYSE: BRK) PTC-enabled network is 33 percent interoperable, while Union Pacific’s (NYSE: UNP) network is 23 percent interoperable and CSX’s (NYSE: CSX) is 24 percent interoperable.

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC), Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU) and the U.S. operations of Canadian National (NYSE: CNI) and Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) have yet to achieve interoperability on their PTC-enabled networks. All four are listed at zero percent as of March 31, although 100 percent of their locomotives and track have the technology installed.

Meanwhile, 29 percent of the commuter rail network is interoperable. Amtrak’s network has 19 percent interoperability.

Details on interoperability are available here.

While interoperability is one element that constitutes the successful implementation and deployment of PTC, there are other steps as well, according to the FRA. The railroads must conduct field testing, known as revenue service demonstration, of uncertified PTC systems on the general rail network; submit a PTC safety plan to the FRA, with host railroads also required to obtain PTC system certification; and activate the PTC so that it governs all operations on the required main lines, the FRA said.

Looking at the overall network, PTC systems were in operation on almost 48,050 of the nearly 58,000 route miles affected by the mandate as of Match 31, the FRA said. This is a 3 percent increase from the fourth quarter of 2018. Conducting field tests and ensuring interoperability are among the next steps towards full integration.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily. Her transportation background extends to writing about automotive fuels and additives for Hart Energy Publishing and producing summaries on advanced transportation research for a federal government agency. In her spare time, she likes writing travel articles, taking photographs, and singing and dancing. She has a bachelor's degree in music and political science from Barnard College, a master's in journalism from Boston University, and a master's in musical theater from Boston Conservatory.

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