In 2008, a Metrolink commuter train crashed head-on into a freight train in a Los Angeles suburb, leaving 25 passengers dead and more than 130 injured.

The tragedy prompted the US Congress to urgently enact the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which decreed that Positive Train Control (PTC) systems be installed on all main-line tracks before December 2015.

PTC is a safety system that automatically slows down or breaks the train if the engineer misses a signal or goes over the speed limit, thus eliminating the possibility of human error.

Calculated to cost up to $22.5bn during the next 20 years, PTC is the single-largest regulatory expenditure ever imposed on the industry by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

A more recent accident in March 2015, which killed eight people and left more than 200 injured, further fuelled the debate on the importance and urgency of implementing PTC across the network.

After an investigation into the incident, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the accident was caused by the train’s engineer becoming distracted and losing situational awareness – the Amtrak train was running 102mph in a 50mph zone when it derailed. It also said that the tragedy could have been prevented by PTC.

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But the initial deadline was missed by a great margin, due to a mix of technological challenges and funding shortages, and has now been pushed to 2018, or even later for some railroad segments across the US.

PTC: an expensive, but effective technology

The PTC system is made up of three devices, namely the train’s onboard computer, the trackside ‘ping’ points and the dispatch stations, which all communicate signals between themselves in real-time.

Before heading out on a trip, the train’s onboard computer downloads information about the route, so it will know when brakes should be activated and apply them if anything goes amiss.

Although the system cannot prevent all accidents, it drastically increases safety by averting train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by speeding, train movements through misaligned track switches and unauthorised train entry into work zones.

But its implementation proved to be an incredibly complex task.

In a report published just two months ahead of the initial deadline, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that most railroads did not expect to meet the 2015 deadline, and looked into the most cited challenges with which operators were struggling.

One big hurdle had always been the sheer cost of implementing the technology. ARR estimates that Class I freight railroads will spend more than $9bn implementing PTC on over 60,000 miles and 23,000 locomotives, while commuter railroads will spend in excess of $3.5bn on over 8,300 track miles and 4,700 locomotives and passenger cars.

“Without federal funding available specifically for PTC, rail operators face the prospect of massive costs to meet the implementation deadline in 2015 to the detriment of other necessary capital investments,” stated a whitepaper from the Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications.

Another critical drawback is the issue of integration: PTC deployment requires various technical components to work together, many of them being ‘first generation technologies’ specifically designed and developed for PTC. The lengthy testing of these components takes time, which slows down delivery. Limitations in radio bandwidth and incomplete radio system requirements also played a big role.

“Interoperability sits upon the foundation of a huge, shared database with information the different railroads need to update and access regularly,” leading PTC expert and ARR consultant Jeff Young, wrote in an editorial.

“This includes information like the precise locations of thousands of railroad switches and wayside signals. This has been an enormous challenge, because rail operators need to keep this information updated even as switch and signal location changes are constantly changing,” he adds.

Slow but steady progress

Many railroads, including Amtrak, BNSF and Union Pacific pushed their implementation deadline to 2018, while six of them – Canadian National Railway, Central Florida Rail Corridor,  CSX Transportation, Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Norfolk Southern and Northeast IL Regional Commuter Rail Corp – have pushed it as late as 2020.

Of the 29 selected railroads sampled in GOA’s report in 2015, 20 estimated that they would have PTC fully operational within one to five years after the 2015 deadline, while three stated that they did not have an estimated completion date.

In March this year, FRA released a status update that shows that Class I freight railroads had installed positive train control on 16% of required track as of December 2016. The progress varies significantly between individual carriers, especially since the report takes several aspects into consideration, such as the number of locomotives equipped, radio towers installed, employee training, route miles in PTC operation, and PTC certification.

During the same period passenger lines had made less headway, increasing from 23% of tracks to 24%.

“When railroads realised they would fail to meet the deadline, many threatened to shut down entirely rather than be subject to steep fines and increased liability, prompting lawmakers to extend the deadline in order to avoid a potential shutdown of major cargo and passenger services,” the report reads.

The deadline extension to 2018 also includes a provision under which railroads could petition the FRA for an extra two years to implement the system.

Since 2008, FRA has provided more than $716m in grants for the implementation of PTC systems. For this fiscal year, it announced the availability of $199m in grants to commuter railroads and state and local governments for PTC.

“We continue to closely monitor railroads’ progress implementing Positive Train Control,” said FRA executive director Patrick Warren in a statement, adding, “With less than two years remaining to complete the implementation process, it is imperative that railroads continue to meet implementation milestones.”