Putting on the PTC pressure

All too often, it takes a tragedy to raise public awareness of — and prompt action on — long-standing issues. Last week's deadly Metrolink/Union Pacific Railroad collision is an unfortunate example.

A week ago, positive train control was a technology all but unheard of to those outside of the rail industry. Today, it's a hot topic in the media, being cited as a way the crash could have been prevented. The news has put the heat on the Federal Railroad Administration. If such a technology that would automatically stop a train if it comes too close to another exists, why isn't it installed wherever it's needed, people wonder?

In a press conference held Monday, FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman explained that the technology, which currently is being tested through nine projects in 16 states, isn't yet ready to be implemented on the nation's more than 100,000 track miles. For one, the various train-control systems on the market aren't necessarily interoperable with one another, and they need to be adapted to stop trains of different size and weights, Boardman said. In addition, railroads must secure radio frequencies for the systems.

And then there's the matter of cost.

"What are we talking, like, millions?" asked one press conference attendee.

Try billions. Freight railroads would have to install the systems on thousands of locomotives. Commuter railroads that share track with freight railroads would have to do the same. And while transit agencies have far fewer locomotives than a Class I, they also have far fewer dollars to spend.

In light of rising costs, and declining revenue and state and local dollars, transit agencies are struggling just to maintain fares and service levels. Let's use Metrolink as an example: The agency is funded by the transportation agencies from the counties it operates in. Since the state has made it a habit to transfer transportation dollars to the general fund to overcome budget deficits, those county agencies are struggling — and so, in turn, is Metrolink.

In spite of ever-present budget woes, the agency currently is focusing on what, at least up until last Friday, was safety priority No. 1: upgrading all crossings on its Ventura County and Antelope Valley lines, a program prompted by the January 2005 Metrolink accident that was caused by a driver that parked his truck on the tracks in Glendale, Calif.

Installing PTC would involve spending millions and millions of dollars that the agency — all transit agencies, for that matter — simply does not have.

"Can you really put a cost on something that can save lives?" a newspaper reporter asked  on Monday.

It depends on who you ask. But railroads, transit authorities, federal agencies and legislators can make finding a way to pay for those safety upgrades a higher priority. Pretty soon, they might be forced to. This week, two California senators introduced a bill that would require railroads and transit agencies to install PTC on "high risk" lines by the end of 2012 and all other major lines, by 2014's end. It could be the final nudge  that's needed to finally implement the nationwide, affordable, inter-operable train-control system that railroads have been searching for for more than 25 years.
  • Without Support from Federal and state governments, it would be difficult for railroads and transit agencies to fund the PTC deployment in such a large scale within next few years. Moreover there is no inter-operable system available in market which is acceptable by all the concerned parties.

  • First, railroads can afford to install PTC on their own, without public financial assistance.  Remember, these are companies now investing about $10 billion annually in capital spending.  Second, the inoperability problem will be resolved, and I expect reasonably promptly, now that the railroads are required to install PTC.  Within days of the passage of the legislation, they agreed on interoperability standards.  Much of the opposition to PTC was propaganda based, and you're not hearing the same opposition today from the carriers.