So, how does PTC drive in the snow?

Posted by Steve Sweeney
on Friday, February 16, 2018


Here is the author's automobile. It's rusted, dinged, and decrepit ... but it goes in snow. Photo by Brian Schmidt

Where I grew up in the snow belt regions Lake Erie shadows, and where eight feet of snow in a year is an average, not a record, when someone bought a car that's new to them, you ask how it drives in the snow.

Oh, you let them brag about their purchase first: The gas mileage, sunroof, third row or trunk space, how they got a "brand new" spare tire thrown in, or how much get-up-and-go it has, and how great it sounds with the aftermarket subwoofer the first owner installed. They might even tell you it's from the "South," denoting an automobile that lacks rust and has never seen corrosive salt-covered roads in winter time.

All the while you smile and nod waiting for your friend to pause so you can ask: "But how does it drive in the snow?"

And the answer to that question is the only answer you really need. Because when you're driving to work in snow drifts on brick streets, uphill and the wind is blowing, all that matters is whether the car "goes" or "will stop" when desired.

And that is my point about positive train control.

Class I railroad representatives say that the biggest railroads in the country will have PTC equipment fully installed by Dec. 31 this year. And yes, there's testing that needs to be done to make sure everything works right, but they say it will get done. PTC advocates say the compliant systems will be a boon for safety and efficiency. New mechanisms in the future could prevent grade crossing accidents, railroads could have rolling blocks and eliminate problems with fixed wayside equipment, and so on.

By law, any positive train control system in the U.S. — and there are at least four different branded systems that I am aware of — need do four things. A PTC system must "prevent train-to-train crashes, enforce speed limits, protect track workers, and keep trains from running through a misaligned switch."

Nothing more, nothing less.

In most cases, the PTC system that's installed on a right-of-way near you will work right on top of existing signals and control systems so as not to disturb what already works.

Why? Because railroads will have a hard enough time making sure PTC does what it's supposed to do, play nicely with other railroads' locomotives, and not have a succession of errors that force trains to stop frequently, gumming up the system.

By the way, even though all Class I railroads are set to have PTC completely installed by the end of this year, did you know how many will have it operational systemwide by then? Maybe BNSF Railway and maybe Union Pacific. But definitely? Zero.

The answer we've gotten at Trains is that PTC will work nationwide by 2020 so long as the Federal Railroad Administration grants extensions when and where needed.

Sadly, that won't get me to work on a snowy morning.

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