Commuters in the crosshairs

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, May 21, 2018

A handful of commuter-train railroads, chief among them New jersey Transit, may face a painful choice come January 1: Either cancel some or all trains or face crippling fines for operating in defiance of a law requiring their trains be protected by positive train control, or PTC. This could occur should they fail to qualify for a two-year extension to meet the PTC deadline.

Jersey Transit’s predicament is dire. To qualify for an extension of the December 31 deadline for having PTC fully operational, it must install complex hardware on 2,200 locomotives or cab cars and at 334 wayside locations. As of March 31, these devices were in place on 175 of the locomotives and cab cars (8 percent of the total) and 147 of the wayside spots. Other prerequisites for an extension are to have bought all the required radio spectrum (NJT has done this), qualified 1,100 employees to operate trains in PTC territories (less than 20 percent are certified) and begun testing PTC in revenue service on at least one track segment (it hasn’t happened).

Bloomberg News reported today that Jersey Transit is in panic mode (my interpretation) to meet the stipulations for an extension that would give it until the end of 2020 to finish the PTC job.  Starting June 4, NJT will cancel 14 weekday trains (reportedly those with the fewest riders) in order to pull as many as 60 locomotives and cab cars out of service at a time to install the necessary PTC equipment.

Alas, in its misery Jersey Transit has plenty of company. Trinity Railway Express (Dallas-Fort Worth), Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Austin, Texas), New Mexico Rail Runner (Albuquerque), Tri-Rail (Miami-West Palm Beach), and Altamont Corridor Express (San Jose, Cal.) are in as bad or worse positions to qualify for PTC extensions. The difference is that they have less to do because the scopes of their networks are minuscule compared to the New Jersey railroad.

Still, the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees implementation of the 2008 law requiring PTC installation on some 60,000 route miles of railroad, reports that as of March 31, Rail Runner, Trinity and CMTA had done next to nothing toward installing the crash-avoidance technology. Altamont and Tri-Rail had only one-fourth of the needed hardware in place and hadn’t begun training employees.

Several other commuter railroads are not out of the woods, either. Maryland Area Regional Commuter (Baltimore and Washington, D.C.) as of March 31 had installed barely half the required hardware and qualified none of its employees to operate over PTC segments.

None of the railroads I’ve named had begun a required revenue service demonstration of PTC.

And if you really want to get spooked, the Government Accountability Office reported in February that 11 of the commuter railroads are in danger of being unable to meet the statutory requirements for an extension of the PTC deadline.

So what happens if passenger railroads large or small drop the ball and fail to qualify for a two-year waiver of the December 31 deadline? Ron Batory, FRA’s administrator, has met face to face with all of the affected railroads. But he has no discretion—he cannot, for instance, even let a railroad run at line-of-sight speeds over PTC-required territories that are not operational. Willfully running a train that violates the positive train control rules subjects the railroad to a $25,000 fine—per train. Congress could again bail out the railroads this year by softening the consequences of failing to fail, this is, not even moving far from the starting line. But I give that zero chance. Then the alternative is to give the government all your revenues in the form of fines or not run the trains at all, which in New Jersey would result in transportation chaos and perhaps shorten the careers of the politicians and rail officials who allowed it to happen.

After all, it’s not that this took anyone by surprise. The law has been on the books for a decade, and the freight railroads subject to its provisions will either be in full compliance (BNSF Railway) or easily quality for the two-year extension to finish the job. What sets the freight and passenger railroads apart is that the freight companies can pay the huge costs of PTC implementation from earnings, whereas the commuter rails must beg their political sponsors for the money, and not all those politicians have been listening. FRA had to throw Metropolitan Transportation Authority a $1 billion low-interest loan to get MTA’s Long Island and Metro-North Commuter railroads PTC-equipped (both are well along the path). To its credit, Congress has advanced Amtrak the necessary money, and PTC should be fully in compliance with the law by the end of 2018.

Jersey Transit wasn’t as fortunate. If it sought an FRA loan, it didn’t qualify, and the state legislature and former Governor Chris Christie were no help at all. Moreover, people within NJT may have explaining to do. Bloomberg News quotes Jersey Transit’s senior director of PTC as telling the FRA in an email last year: “NJT is still not taking this as seriously as it should. I am not nearly so optimistic, and biting my tongue has become an essential skill.”

Positive train control is a fascinating technology. It should provide unheard-of safety benefits, by preventing head-on collisions, violations of speed limits, and unauthorized incursions by trains into established track-work zones. To satisfy the 2008 law, the industry will spend at least $13 billion. But spend a little bit more and you could enable impressive operational benefits. The ability to know the location of a train to within a few feet permits you to run trains at closer intervals. It even could enable autonomous (look Ma, no crew!) trains.

But first, it has to be proven in its present form. BNSF is the first big railroad to both install the required technology and put it through all the shake-down tests. Already PTC has prevented at least one head-on BNSF disaster in the Texas Panhandle. But the big test is still to come, and it is this: Can Norfolk Southern run its PTC-enabled trains over PTC-enabled CSX, or Union Pacific its trains over BNSF, and everything go as planned? This is called “interoperability.” Nobody knows.

But that’s another story. For some of the commuter railroads, just being able to run a train come January 1 is the big question.—Fred W. Frailey

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