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Railroads look to PTC to shake out more capacity

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For the last 10 years, freight railroads and their regulators have emphasized the safety benefits of Positive Train Control (PTC). But with the technology getting closer to being up and running on every freight track mile required by federal mandate, the nation’s big railroads are starting to consider how PTC may help them make better use of their assets.

All 41 freight and passenger railroads required to install PTC – technology that automatically slows or stops a train before a potential accident – either met the December 31, 2018 federal deadline for full implementation or qualified for an additional two years to get there.

According to a February 15 status update from the Federal Railroad Administration, PTC is operational on 83 percent of freight railroad route mileage and 30 percent of passenger route miles subject to the regulation.

The two key remaining steps prior to full implementation on the freight side include system testing on the remaining 17 percent of track and ensuring interoperability among connecting railroads.

“PTC will save lives, protect property and make America’s vast rail network considerably safer,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao last week. “That’s why it’s so important that all 41 railroads meet the Congressionally mandated deadline.”

The railroads also have long stressed the importance of investing in capacity to be in better position to compete with other railroads and with trucks for shippers’ freight. There are some indications, however, that capacity improvement is eluding the railroads despite those investments. That’s where PTC might be able to help.

“When the railroads were looking at PTC 15 years ago, they were looking at it from a business perspective” in addition to safety, said Michael Rush, vice president of safety and operations at the Association of American Railroads (AAR), at a recent media briefing. “Now that the safety work is well underway, they’re beginning again to look at the potential business benefits.”

Rush said there are certain corridors where the railroads may be able to make use of PTC technology to increase traffic, such as areas that incorporate a moving-block (versus a fixed-block) system. This would allow more trains to safely operate along segments within these corridors “so there is an ability potentially to make more intensive use of our infrastructure to handle more traffic,” he said.

A study conducted in 2004 for the Federal Railroad Administration found that because PTC would allow the railroads to increase average car velocity across their networks, they would be able offer the same service with fewer locomotives and cars. It estimated annual economic benefits to both railroads and shippers reaching into the billions of dollars, including railroad fuel savings ranging from $56 million to $130 million per year.

While improving safety continues to be the main focus of PTC from a regulator’s perspective – PTC rollout is among the National Transportation Safety Board’s “Most Wanted” list – it’s likely to be used increasingly as a competitive advantage to squeeze more capacity out of the network. Capacity gains are also an objective behind precision railroading, an operating philosophy adopted by all the major freight railroads over the last several years.

“There have also been enormous increases in freight network capacity over the last 20 years simply because of investments” made by the railroads into their own systems, contends John Gray, AAR’s vice president for policy and economics. “There are lines handling well over 100 million tons today that couldn’t have done half that amount 20 years ago simply because the capacity hadn’t been built.”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.