Commuter railroads cite progress as PTC deadline nears

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Approaching the 99th Street Station on the Beverly Branch, an inbound Metra Rock Island train passes under signals awaiting activation for positive train control operation in July 2018. Metra began the revenue service demonstration stage of PTC operations on the Rock Island District in October.
TRAINS: David Lassen

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Commuter railroads have made substantial progress in preparing for the end-of-year deadline to implement positive train control, says Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association. Skoutelas and representatives of several commuter rail agencies held a conference call Wednesday to discuss the state of PTC on their systems.

Nineteen of 28 systems are either currently in PTC operation, in revenue service demonstrations, or awaiting FRA approval to begin testing.  As of Sept. 30, 96 percent of wayside and 94 percent of onboard PTC equipment has been installed and 85 percent of employees have been trained in PTC operation across these 28 commuter railroads.

Skoutelas pointed to the numerous technical challenges commuter operators have faced. These include the limited number of qualified vendors, debugging software issues, and gaining access to track and locomotives for equipment installation. Achieving interoperability among equipment from different railroads has been another hurdle.

The most complex installation no doubt falls to Chicago’s Metra. With six of its 11 routes owned by freight railroads, Metra Executive Director and CEO Jim Derwinski says, “The interoperability in Chicago will be one of our biggest challenges.” Metra’s 700 daily commuter trains run with 600 freight movements and 100 Amtrak trains.

As of early October, Metra completed installation of all onboard and wayside equipment and started revenue service demonstrations on the Rock Island district. Derwinski says that the Union Pacific Northwest and Union Pacific West lines began demonstrations on November 13.

The rollout has not come without few difficulties. At one point, Derwinski explained, the PTC system was pumping a greater volume of electronic messages between trains and trackside than the radios could handle. They’ve since done an upgrade on the radios, but “as more and more PTC systems get lit up for monitoring,” he said, “we’ll have to see if eventually there will have to be a hardware upgrade.”

A northbound Coaster train nears Del Mar in January 2016. The Coaster's PTC system received conditional certification in September.
TRAINS: David Lassen

Metra also addressed an earlier issue with the accuracy of its GPS. Now, they are military-grade units, accurate to within half a meter. “When you pull into a depot with 10 tracks, PTC needs to know which track you’re on,” Derwinski says.

The North County Transit District, the agency overseeing San Diego’s Coaster trains, must integrate with Amtrak, Metrolink, BNSF and Pacific Sun Railroad equipment. NCTD began a phased implementation in December 2017, activating a few trains each week until all were running PTC. Matthew Tucker, NCTD’s executive director, says that the FRA conditionally certified their PTC system on Sept. 21.

“We are very pleased with the system so far and we are very much looking forward to the added safety measures that PTC will provide,” says Tucker.

Implementation of PTC has come at significant cost to these commuter railroads, which are also struggling to fund necessary maintenance and upgrades. APTA’s Skoutelas says it will cost $4.1 billion to complete installation on the nation’s commuter railroads.

SEPTA’s general manager, Jeffrey Knueppel, cites a $344 million total project cost. The North County Transit District put a $90 million price tag on their PTC implementation.

Metra will spend $400 million to deploy PTC and faces additional ongoing, annual costs of $15-to-$20 million to maintain and operate it. Derwinski says they’ve had to defer purchasing locomotives and coach cars.

“All of the commuter rail agencies have had to revise their capital improvement programs,” says Skoutelas. “Our desire is that we can get Congress and the administration to focus on a new infrastructure bill.”




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