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Positive Train Control May Not Be Fully Operational by Dec. 31 Deadline

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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A Union Pacific train in St. Paul, Minnesota. During 2018, UP said it will continue to install and implement Positive Train Control across its network, with work during the first quarter focusing mainly in southeast Texas and New Mexico. (DTN photo by Mary Kennedy)

The nation's railroads have a little over 10 months left to implement new positive train control systems meant to improve safety and security. While some railroads report that they expect to meet the Dec. 31 deadline to implement the new systems, others say they have made little progress.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released a letter on Jan. 2, 2018, from Secretary Elaine L. Chao to the entire nation's Class I railroads, intercity passenger railroads and state and local transit authorities stressing the urgency and importance of safely implementing positive train control (PTC) systems in the upcoming year to meet the Dec. 31, 2018, deadline, as mandated by Congress.

"Advancing the implementation of Positive Train Control is among th` most important rail safety initiatives on the Department's agenda," said Secretary Chao. "The FRA leadership has been directed to work with your organization's leadership to help create an increased level of urgency to underscore the imperative of meeting existing expectations for rolling out this critical rail-safety technology."

Here is a link to a copy of her letter and more background on PTC:…

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 originally mandated that PTC systems be implemented across a significant portion of the nation's rail industry by Dec. 31, 2015. PTC is an integrated command, control, communications and information systems for controlling train movements with safety, security, precision and efficiency.

However, following warnings by several railroad companies that they would not be able to meet that deadline, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Sept. 30, 2015, introduced bipartisan legislation to extend the Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for all railroads operating in the United States to be compliant with PTC technology.

On Oct. 27 and 28, 2015, Congress passed the bipartisan Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2015 (P.L. 114-73). Section 1302 was the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015, which extended the deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, with the option of up to 24 months of "additional time." Additional time is subject to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) review and approval if railroads meet certain implementation milestones.

In a Feb. 8, 2018, article, the Omaha World-Herald said officials for the trade associations representing the seven major freight railroads in the U.S. and the nation's commuter railroads now say they view Dec. 31 "as the date by which railroads must meet several PTC milestones to qualify for an extension, rather than the ultimate deadline."

"The Transportation Department has little choice but to grant the extensions as long as railroads meet the milestones," Kathryn Kirmayer, the Association of American Railroads' general counsel, told the World-Herald. "One milestone is that freight railroads have PTC in operation on half their route miles where it's required."

Members of Congress expressed frustration with railroads backing off this year's deadline, the World-Herald reported. Congress never intended the extensions be used "to allow railroads that have dragged their feet to just blow off the mandate," said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the House Transportation Committee's senior Democrat, according to the World-Herald. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the Senate Commerce Committee's senior Democrat, said, "Every railroad should be taking the recent deadly train accidents seriously and doing everything they can to meet the 2018 deadline."

The Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials announced on their website that they will meet on Thursday, Feb. 15, to receive testimony on the status of implementing PTC on the freight and passenger rail network by the Dec. 31 deadline. Here is a link to the committee's announcement:…

Reports filed with the FRA show some railroads are getting close to being mostly compliant with PTC deadline, while others show little progress. Here is a link to the 2017 third-quarter report of PTC implementation and status for each railroad:…


Union Pacific (UP) continues to make strides implementing positive train control (PTC). The company noted in a press release on Feb. 7 that it "anticipates it will make all required deadlines for installing PTC on its network." However, as allowed by federal law, Union Pacific also noted "it will continue to test and refine the immature technologies comprising the system in 2019-20."

Union Pacific's PTC footprint is the largest of all North American railroads, encompassing more than 17,000 route miles, roughly 55% more miles than the next largest railroad. Union Pacific said in the press release that it is in regular contact with the FRA officials regarding its PTC progress.

Installing and implementing PTC across the U.S. rail network (passenger and freight) is costly and complex, noted the UP. "One of the most complex parts of implementing PTC is ensuring system interoperability among all U.S. rail lines and locomotives. Given the various readiness levels of North American freight and passenger railroads, it will be important that all railroads continue working together to ensure smooth and safe transitions as PTC is implemented."

Here is a link to the UP press release and the progress it has made towards implementing PTC:…

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