Are We Turning the Corner on PTC?

Posted by David Lester
on Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The debate around PTC has dominated rail technology discussions for several years.  The controversy came to a head when the original December 31, 2015 deadline approached, and carriers could not have PTC up and running by then.  The drama intensified when carriers drafted documents for shippers and governments saying they would no longer provide service on lines that required PTC.  These lines, of course, included the nation's major rail freight arteries.  The industry forced Congress' hand - enforce the mandate, and much of the rail system will shut down and wreck the economy, or extend the deadline.  Congress moved the cutoff to December 31, 2018.  And, the railroads that have shown significant progress with their implementation, but need time for additional testing will likely qualify for an extension to December 31, 2020.

Over the past few months, there’s been a change in the rhetoric offered by the rail industry around PTC.  For example, Jim Squires, CEO of Norfolk Southern recently said “Let’s do it right, and let’s make the best of it.  I’m trying to change the tone on PTC and see it as an opportunity, and not just a burden.”  He asked, too, how the industry could use PTC as a building block for the railroad of tomorrow.

In April, Matt Rose, Executive Chairman of BNSF, said that his railroad is running many trains with PTC, adding that the system has already prevented several accidents.  The statements of these executives are a far cry from those we used to hear, which essentially said that PTC was an unfunded mandate that the railroads were required to meet and pay for (which is still true), but the business benefit to the industry would be negligible.  With PTC already having prevented several accidents on BNSF, which it will undoubtedly do on other railroads, not having trains derail, collide, or explode will definitely have a business benefit.

Reports indicate that BNSF is ahead of other railroads in PTC implementation.  According to Rose, although PTC will be complete on BNSF by December 31, 2018, the nationwide system won't be finished until December 31, 2020, as the other Class Is will likely require two additional years to complete their testing, enabling the system to become interoperable.

From its earliest days, technological change has always been a hallmark of the rail industry.  Stronger rail, better roadbeds, more powerful locomotives, and sophisticated signaling systems – the list goes on.  PTC ranks as one of the most significant of all technological innovations the industry has seen, and sets the stage for advances in automation, leveraging more insight from big data, and improving safety on the railroad.

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