A new safety technology that could have prevented a series of deaths and millions in damages due to railway accidents has now been implemented prior to deadlines set by Congress. The technology, called Positive Train Control, is intended to prevent accidents caused by human error, which is most of them. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 41 percent of such accidents are caused by human error.
In recent years a number of high-profile accidents, notably on commuter lines, could have been avoided had PTC been in place. An example includes a deadly Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia that killed eight and injured over 200, which was caused by the train entering a 50 MPH curve while traveling over 100 miles per hour. Federal investigators said that PTC could have prevented the accident.
What is PTC?
Positive Train Control is a multi-part implementation of technologies that includes control and reporting devices inside locomotives, trackside sensors and back-office computer systems that track train locations and movements and communicate with the sensors and locomotive based devices. PTC may also include other sensors to determine conditions such as signals, track condition and switch positions.
Positive Train Control has been fully implemented on Class 1 railroads in the United States. It’s required in areas that carry hazardous materials and for passenger trains. This includes local commuter trains, but it doesn’t include transit operations that don’t use railroads, although most transit operations have their own version of train control. The Class 1 railroads are using PTC on their main lines, but some minor trackage may not include PTC.
This safety technology will have a significant impact on railroad customers. Freight users will find that their shipments are delivered more reliably. Passengers will see improved safety and better on-time performance. And of course losses due to accidents will be significantly reduced.
However, this does not mean that accidents will be completely eliminated. There will still be morons who drive around crossing gates, for example. In addition, some events such as natural disasters, can cause train accidents. Other causes, such as track or equipment failure aren’t part of PTC, but they are being separately addressed through automation and training.
The move to PTC was mandated by the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which passed Congress in 2008, with implementation begun in 2010. Because of the expense and complexity of implementing PTC, it took another ten years to complete.
Essentially, PTC is a massive IoT project with data sources and sensors spanning the nationwide rail network. While each railroad handles the details of its PTC design itself, all must be compatible, so that any locomotive can run on any railroad and have PTC work the same way. Depending on the railroad, the wireless signals can use private radio networks, cellular communications or other means. Once 5G communications cover major portions of a railroad’s operating area, this mode of communications is likely to be a major factor in providing the communications infrastructure for PTC.
The project was paid for by the individual railroads and through $3.4 billion in loans and grants from the FRA. Eventually, PTC should also result in more efficient movement of passengers and freight because railroads will have better visibility into their train operations, and can therefore schedule train movements more tightly, allowing less space between trains and allowing higher speeds and more frequent operations.