Of great concern to US railroads but little known by shippers are upcoming requirements for vast new electronic systems, known by the term “positive train control” (PTC), thought by regulators to produce substantial improvements in rail safety.
But are the billions in investment required to implement PTC worth the costs? And will those dollars spent on PTC impact rail shippers by siphoning of investment capital needed for rail system expansion and efficiency gains over time?
Those are among the questions being asked by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry’s trade and lobbying group.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 was signed into law in October, 2008, and is being implemented by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The law reflects some 15 years of concern about railroad accidents (including passenger trains), and in the end requires a number of different rail carriers to implement technology thought by regulators to reduce the likelihood of future safety-related incidents.
PTC can be summarized as a collision avoidance system that is centered in the locomotive.
“The system works by monitoring the vehicle’s location and a variety of operational and power settings on the locomotive. These monitoring activities combined, while factoring in the necessary braking distance, will essentially allow PTC to manage locomotive spacing,” according to Bill Rennicke, a principle at consulting firm Oliver Wyman, who recently spoke on this issue with John Larkin, a respected transportation industry analyst at investment firm Stifel, Nicolaus & Company.
PTC is basically a set of technologies that will be overlaid on existing locomotive and track controls systems, rather than a separate control layer on its own, and works by making the locomotive continuously confirm that it is operating within its permitted section of track at the permitted speed. If those rules are violated, an automatic breaking action is applied.
While there have always been concerns about rail safety, the proximate catalyst for the 2008 rail safety law was the “Chatsworth” accident earlier in the year in which a commuter and freight train collided near Los Angeles, killing more than two dozen people. (The cause of that accident was found to be the commuter train driver running a red light on the track.)
According to the new law and FRA interpretation, PTC must be implemented o all main lines over which there is regularly scheduled commuter or passenger trains, and all the lines of Class I railroad that carry 5 million gross tons or more, or on which there's toxic or poisonous material handled on the line. (The US Transportation Secretary can also designate other lines for the requirements, and Class 2 and 3 railroads can also be required to use PTC in some instances.)
What it Will Cost
One recent estimate concluded that from the requirements as they stand today, about 74,000 miles, or 78% of the existing Class I network total of 94,000 miles, will need to support PTC.
The FRA itself estimates that the upfront cost to the Class I railroads will be about $5 billion dollars, with billions more spent to maintain the system over time. (See graphic below.)
(Transportation Management Article - Continued Below)