Union Pacific, Amtrak nearly finished with Positive Train Control upgrades | nnbusinessview.com

Union Pacific, Amtrak nearly finished with Positive Train Control upgrades

Sally Roberts
Positive Train Control links GPS tracking to locomotives, tracks and contols to stop a train in certain situations.
Courtesy Union Pacific |

What IS PTC, and what does it do?

Positive Train Control (PTC) is designed to stop a train when it detects certain dangers, such as:

• Train-to-train collisions.

• Derailments caused by excessive train speed.

• Train movements through misaligned track switches.

• Unauthorized train entry into work zones.

Visit www.fra.dot.gov/ptc to learn more.

RENO, Nev. — The installation of Positive Train Control — an integrated technology system designed to stop some rail accidents by controlling speed — is nearly complete across the United States.

Railroads are required to have PTC systems installed by Dec. 31, 2018, and fully operable by Dec. 31, 2020.

According to reports from Union Pacific, 99.7 percent of PTC hardware had been installed as of Dec. 31, 2017, on the company’s routes — including through Reno — and on 98 percent of its locomotives.

Those lines are in the testing phase. Other lines are expected to have PTC systems installed before the deadline.

Amtrak, which uses the Union Pacific-owned track in this region — and owns rail in other parts of the country — had 96 percent of the hardware installed, as of Sept. 30, 2017.

“Say a train enters a 35 mph area and it’s going 50,” Justin E. Jacobs, director of media relations for Union Pacific, explained to the NNBW. “PTC will take the control from the train crew and slow the train.

“It’s an extra, redundant system, all aimed to make the system safer. It’s not going to stop vehicle/train accidents because the other vehicle isn’t connected to the system.”

Some, but not all

A fully operational PTC system might have prevented the Dec. 18, 2017, derailment of an Amtrak train south of Seattle that killed three people and left rail cars hanging off an overpass and onto the freeway below. Officials say the train was traveling 81 mph just before a curve with a recommended speed of 30 mph.

However, from a local standpoint, PTC would not have prevented the 2011 accident at the U.S. 95 crossing 70 miles east of Reno. Six people died when a tractor-trailer rig failed to stop for a crossing gate and plowed into the side of a westbound Amtrak passenger train.

The National Transportation and Safety Board blamed the accident on faulty brakes on the truck and inattention by the driver, who was among the dead.

Nor would PTC systems have prevented more recent accidents caused by cars stalled on the tracks, or pedestrians walking on them.

“PTC is for the locomotive,” Marc Magliari, spokesman for Amtrak Government Affairs & Corporate Communications, told the NNBW. “It doesn’t stop people from disregarding the warnings that a train is coming. It doesn’t prevent people from trespassing. It doesn’t prevent vehicles from stopping on the track.”

In other words, while it can’t stop all rail accidents, PTC is expected to save lives, once fully installed and operational.

‘We’re Working Together’

Installing railroad tracks and locomotives with PTC systems is a complex, nationwide undertaking.

Adding to the complexity is the number of companies using the same rails. Amtrak passenger trains travel Union Pacific-owned tracks as well as freight trains from other companies. For the PTC system to function, passenger, commuter and freight trains must be able to seamlessly communicate and operate across all railroad systems.

“There is a whole array of components that make the system work,” Jacobs said. “We’re working together to complete the system.”

During a Feb. 15 hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson explained the complexities.

“PTC relies on three interdependent elements, all of which must be in place for the system to function,” he said, which are as follows:

Owners and operators must install equipment on the locomotives.

Trackside equipment that monitors signals, switches and track circuits must be installed by host railroads.

The elements must be able to communicate with each other through computer systems, called back office servers (BOS), that link information from the track and the locomotive.

“Testing of the system will proceed, beginning this spring, to verify functionality along with system interoperability testing to ensure that all of the disparate components work together correctly,” Anderson said, adding that, with testing will likely come short-term challenges.

For example, the Union Pacific fourth quarter report on the progress of the PTC installations states: “Trains (being tested) are experiencing unintended stops, which are the result of a built-from-scratch technology in the hands of employees still becoming familiar with it. These unintended stops have an adverse impact on our system. On occasion, the communities we serve experience impacts to vehicular traffic.”


The federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated the installation of PTC systems on passenger railroads and freight lines used to transport passengers or toxic materials.

The original deadline for installations of January 2012 was extended to Dec. 31, 2018, due to the complexity of the technology and integrating the systems for multiple users. Full implementation is required nationwide by Dec. 31, 2020.

The Association of American Railroads estimates that, as of the end of 2017, freight railroads together have spent more than $8 billion on PTC development and deployment.

Amtrak has invested $2.6 billion in PTC as of Dec. 31, 2017, and expects to spend another $160 million in 2018.

Union Pacific, which has more than 17,000 miles of track required to have PTC signal hardware, plans to spend about $180 million on PTC in 2018, with a total estimated cost of $2.9 billion.

While a fully-installed integrated PTC system is expected to make rails safer, it can’t stop all accidents.

In 2017, there were 1,880 accidents at grade crossings involving 243 fatalities and a separate 552 trespasser fatalities, Anderson told the Congressional committee.

“PTC will help protect against many of the human factors-caused accidents that occur across the U.S. rail system, but having made progress against this vulnerability, we must also turn our attention and the attention of the highway and motorist communities to the startling loss of life that occurs on a daily basis when motorists and pedestrians occupy the right of way ahead of a train,” he said.


See more