Federal deadline for positive train control cannot be met - report

16 September 2013 21:19  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--A federal mandate for safer freight rail train controls cannot be achieved by its December 2015 deadline and likely will need two or even three more years for completion, according to a government study circulated on Monday.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that much of the work needed to implement the technology known as positive train control (PTC) over 60,000 miles of US freight and passenger rail lines cannot be completed by the end of 2015.

The GAO report said that as of the end of 2012 “about a third of the wayside interface units needed to communicate data had been installed, and that less than 1% of locomotives needing upgrades had been fully equipped”.

Authorised by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, PTC involves the use of signals, sensors along the track and equipment on train engines to communicate train location, the train’s speed and track speed limitations along with moving authority - which trains have the go-ahead to move on specific lines - to central monitoring stations.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), PTC technology could prevent accidents caused by train operator or dispatcher error.

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) study found that PTC could be expected to reduce the number of accidents due to excessive speed, conflicting train movements and engineer failure to obey wayside signals.

Those in the railroad operating command centre would have the ability to slow or even stop a train that was at risk for an accident.

But in addition to delays in installing the necessary communications and train tracking technology, the effort to fully implement positive train control may be impeded by disagreements among rail carriers and shippers on cost sharing.

PTC would without question raise operating costs, and rail operators and high-volume freight shippers such as chemicals manufacturers differ on how those costs should be covered.

Rail carriers essentially want the cost to be absorbed by producers and shippers of high-risk cargoes - known as toxic inhalant hazard (TIH) cargoes - while the chemicals sector argues that the costs should be spread across all freight shipments.

A study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) indicated that if the estimated $10bn (€7.5bn) cost of PTC implementation were allocated across all rail cargo freight, the cost per carload could increase by $23. 

However, according to the study by consulting firm Snavely King, if those costs were allocated only to hazmat cargoes, the per-carload cost could increase by up to $10,000.

The GAO study said that even before multiple components are installed across the vast national rail network, various testing phases will be required and would consume more time.

In addition, GAO said that rail operators “raised concerns regarding the Federal Railroad Administration’s limited staff resources in two areas: verification of field tests and timely certification of PTC systems”.

Legislation pending in the US Congress would push back the PTC deadline by several years.

($1 = €0.75)

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By: Joe Kamalick
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