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Senate witnesses: Positive train control still faces hurdles

Image: BNSF

Passenger and freight railroads are scrambling to meet a December 31, 2020 deadline to fully implement positive train control (PTC) technology on their locomotives and their networks, but software challenges and limited vendor resources are creating hurdles, witnesses said at a July 31 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“We’re at a crossroads. I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ve heard from the panel that there’s been a lot of progress,” said Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure for the Government Accountability Office. Her written testimony is available here

The Senate committee held the hearing to get an update on how implementation progress is coming along and what the challenges are that the industry is facing.

The Class I railroads and passenger railroads must have PTC, a safety technology that monitors the distance between trains, fully installed and operating by December 2020. Short line railroads that host passenger railroads on their network must also have PTC installed by that deadline.

Fleming described how some railroads have had PTC fully installed and operating, while others are still at the beginning stages. 

“I think folks are taking this very seriously, but that being said, we have only four that have crossed the finish line. We have 11 that are still in the early stages, and we have some pretty complex hurdles to get through, whether it’s the limited number of vendors, or whether it’s the software issues,” Fleming said.

As of June 30, 2019, PTC systems were operating on approximately 87 percent of the nearly 58,000 route miles subject to the mandate, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) head Ronald Batory said in written testimony. The Class I railroads have PTC operating on approximately 91 percent of their required main lines, he said.

“We’re doing everything to keep disappointments from happening,” Batory told the committee. The FRA will provide a quarterly update on PTC implementation later this month.

But many of the railroads have to complete their advance field testing, also known as revenue service demonstration, and as these tests occur, some railroads are encountering hurdles in getting their software to run smoothly. 

“With respect to resources, it has been a challenge in the industry. There’s a lot of specialized operational knowledge and software knowledge that goes into supporting this system,” said Robert Bourg, vice president of strategy and growth for Wabtec (NYSE: WAB). His testimony is here.

He continued, “I personally believe we’re over the hump with respect to this, but the ongoing maintenance will be a challenge and retaining those people and assuring that we keep the pipeline with qualified resources who understand the application and have the technical skills to maintain the application are very important.”

The railroads must also ensure that their PTC systems are interoperable, meaning that two different rail companies can send and receive signals between them.

“You have the big hurdle of interoperability. Trying to work through that, particularly in certain parts of the country. So, I think we are at a crossroads. I think a lot of work has happened, but  there continues to be software issues, reliability issues, there’s still vendor issues,” Fleming said. “FRA has a lot on its plate. Some of the safety plans are 1,000 pages. They are trying to create a template to have some type of standardization but that’s not going to work with every PTC system.” 

Chris Matthews, BNSF assistant vice president for network control systems, described the complexity of interoperability in his testimony. “This is an intensive process that involves federation of each railroad’s back office servers, commissioning of locomotives, and lab and field testing followed finally by revenue service production interoperability. We conduct weeks, and in some cases months, of testing and preparation with each railroad,” Matthews said. “Once we are interoperable, we need to maintain the flow of accurate information between railroads to ensure smooth interchange of trains and prompt resolution of any technical problems.” 

The panelists all agreed that the industry is in the thick of PTC implementation, and while much has been achieved, much lies ahead.

“How is that going to all play out? I think we’re at a critical juncture. Six months from now I think we’ll be able to take a closer pulse to where things are,” Fleming said.

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.