Federal watchdog agency: Two of three commuter railroads may miss PTC deadline

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WASHINGTON — Congress' watchdog on government says as many as two-thirds of U.S. commuter railroads may not meet a Dec. 31 deadline for positive train control or be eligible for a deadline extension under current rules.

Officials with the Government Accountability Office say in a March 1 report, released a day early, that seven to 19 commuter railroads in the U.S. have not given their workers enough time to complete six milestones required by the Federal Railroad Administration to qualify for waivers for full positive train control operation. A waiver would allow a railroad that is required to have PTC operational by Dec. 31 of this year extensions up to Dec. 31, 2020. An official from the accountability office is set to testify about the report on Thursday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

The six milestones are:
•installing all needed PTC system hardware;
•acquiring all necessary radio spectrum;
•completing required employee training;
•submitting to the FRA an alternate implementation schedule;
•certifying that a railroad will comply with the law according to the alternative schedule; and
•operating a "revenue service demonstration" on at least one territory where PTC will be required.

The report authors say that the biggest problem for commuter railroads is the sixth requirement, a revenue service demonstration. They cite FRA experts saying it can take 1 to 3 years from the beginning of field tests — where trains are not relying on PTC systems, but are connected to the systems — to the start of revenue demonstrations. The accountability office found that seven commuter railroads won't begin testing until June, leaving them at risk of failing to qualify for a waiver.

Using FRA's low-end estimate of 1 year to proceed from testing to revenue demonstration, report writers say at least 14 railroads are at risk of not qualifying for a waiver or extension.

Report writers do not name railroads in their document, but the 29 commuter railroads reviewed include Chicago's Metra; New York's Long Island and Metro-North railroads; Los Angeles' Metrolink, and Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. SEPTA's progress and leadership on implementing PTC will be featured in the July 2018 issue of Trains.

The American Public Transportation Association, which represents most commuter railroads, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment from Trains News Wire.

Congress requires most commuter railroads to have positive train control through the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act passed in response to the fatal collision of a Metrolink train with a Union Pacific locomotive in 2008. The original deadline was Dec. 31, 2015, but Congress approved a blanket extension for all railroads until this year, and up to 2020 for railroads that meet FRA's milestones.

The report cites a variety of factors for the railroads' difficulty in complying with the laws, including a lack of expertise, scheduling difficulties, lack of coordination between host railroads (often Class I freight railroads) and commuter lines, as well as FRA's capacity to handle the work load.

For FRA, the report specifically recommends that the rail safety agency create a standard way to send information to railroads on deadline extension criteria and processes. The report also calls on the FRA to prioritize how it will allocate personnel and resources to process an expected increase in paperwork railroads submit, as well as assist those railroads that need technical assistance.

The authors say that at the time they initially wrote their report, there were fewer than 12 people at the FRA with enough expertise to review railroads' submissions. At the same time, the FRA released information on its processes and standards in informal ways — through presentations at industry conferences and webinars, for example — rather than through formal, published documents.

An FRA representative tells Trains News Wire that the agency will “... strategically increase its oversight actions and technical assistance to accelerate at-risk railroads’ implementation of PTC systems.”

Examples include meeting with executives of all 41 railroads required to have PTC installed this year to assess their challenges and precise plans. The FRA representative also says that the agency will use information gained from those meetings to prioritize its oversight of railroads moving forward.

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