1990: The National Transportation Safety Board introduced its now-annual list of “most wanted” transportation safety recommendations. A safety system referred to as positive train control was included on that inaugural list, and thereafter, until Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act in 2008.
1994: An analysis undertaken by the FRA at the behest of Congress showed that the safety benefits of a system of positive train control did not justify a mandate.
2004: Ten years later, in response to a request from the Senate Appropriations Committee, the acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration submitted an updated analysis of the cost and benefits of positive train control and related systems. It took into account advances in technology and system savings, and analysis of the business benefits, such as improved traffic flow, a modal shift of goods from trucks to rail, and the concurrent environmental benefits.
The report stated, in part:
There is no vendor offering immediate sale of such a system.
Predicted eight years for development and installation if a funding mechanism were already in place.
If the railroads had thought there were business benefits (that is, improved traffic flow and schedule performance as a measure of ROI) they would have already invested in enhancing operations through PTC.
2008: In September, a passenger to freight train collision in Chatsworth, California left 25 people dead and 135 injured. The engineer at fault in that incident was found to have been distracted by texting.
Within a month, Congress had passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA), requiring certain railroads to install communications-based train control systems to overcome human error or distraction. The mandate required positive train control (PTC) systems to be implemented – installed and interoperable - by December 31, 2015.
There was no federal funding mechanism envisioned as part of the legislation.
2010: The FRA issues final guidance to the railroad industry for PTC implementation as a result of the Rail Safety Improvement Act.
As defined by the Federal Railroad Administration, “PTC uses communication-based/process-based train control technology that provides a system capable of reliably and functionally preventing train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and the movement of a train through a main line switch in the wrong position.”
It must be noted that PTC does not prevent grade crossing or trespasser incidents, which individually result in far more deaths each year. And PTC does not it initiate in-terminal stops. [For more, see “What PTC Does Not Do” below]
2013: In June, the GAO issued Preliminary Observations on Federal Safety Oversight and Positive Train Control Implementation, finding that “railroads may not be able to fully implement PTC by the 2015 deadline ….because of the many interrelated challenges caused by the complexity and breadth of PTC implementation. For example, PTC components, such as back office servers…are still in development. In addition, the need to integrate PTC components and field test the system is a time- and resource-consuming process. …In attempting the implement PTC by the 2015 deadline, railroads will be making choices that could introduce financial and operational risks. For example…without adequate time for field testing, PTC systems could potentially malfunction or fail more frequently, causing system disruptions.”
2015/September: As the deadline approached the GAO issued another review of PTC implementation progress. It found that a majority of commuter railroads not meet the statutory deadline, and those that were close to meeting the deadline were facing risks related to interoperability of their PTC systems with those of other railroads.
“Development of a major component of the Interoperable Electronic Train Management System (IETMS), being installed by the largest railroads, continues to be delayed. Smaller railroads have been challenged in obtaining PTC support and components due to the limited number of vendors.
“Some host railroads have many tenant railroads and the host railroad must work with the tenants to determine if the tenants should equip with PTC. …Railroads must ensure their systems are interoperable, as task that can be challenging when multiple railroads are involved.”
2015/October: Acknowledging these substantial remaining challenges, Congress extended the implementation window. The PTC Enforcement and Implementation Act assigned a new, interim deadline of December 2018, and, under certain qualifying criteria, an ultimate deadline of December 2020.
2018/March: GAO reports Many Commuter Railroads Still Have Significant Additional Implementation Work and Opportunities Exist to Provide Federal Assistance. “GAO’s analysis …found that from 7 to 19 commuter railroads may not complete the milestones before the 2018 implementation deadline or qualify for an RSD-based extension.
“…With the year-end 2019 approaching, and an anticipated significant increase in FRA’s workload, targeting resources to the greatest risk can help better ensure that FRA effectively fulfills its oversight responsibilities and provides commuter railroads the information they need to prepare for the 2018 deadline or seek an extension.”
2018/September: Most Passenger Railroads Expect to Request an Extension and Substantial Work Remains Beyond 2018, GAO. “Challenges related to PTC implementation and FRA’s resources raise questions as to the extent FRA and the passenger railroad industry are poised for full PTC implementation by December 31, 2020. Most passenger railroads anticipate needing an extension, leaving substantial work for both railroads and the FRA to complete before the end of 2020. …In addition, passenger railroads reported that they continue to face many of the same challenges GAO previously identified, such as software defects and limited industry-wide availability of vendors. Further, passenger railroads expressed concern that FRA’s workload will markedly increase as railroads submit requests for extension approval.”