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Status of Positive Train Control Implementation

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, August 26th, 2015


1. Introduction

DOT and FRA are providing this Status Report to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees pursuant to the House Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee Report 113–464 accompanying the FY 2015 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, and in compliance with section 104 of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) (Pub. L. No. 110-432, Division A, codified in section 20157 of title 49, United States Code).

In 2008, after multiple accidents and urging from safety advocates and experts, as well as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Congress mandated that railroads implement Positive Train Control (PTC) systems by December 31, 2015. A majority of railroads will not meet this statutory deadline.

This Status Report informs Congress, railroads, other industry stakeholders, and the public of: (1) the background of the PTC mandate and other requirements; (2) efforts FRA has taken and continues to take to support railroads in implementing PTC; (3) current status of railroads progress in implementing PTC; (4) FRA’s enforcement options for railroads that fail to meet the December 31, 2015, deadline; and (5) a path forward to achieve full PTC implementation.

2. Background

History of Positive Train Control technology and calls for implementation

PTC technology is the single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.

According to the NTSB’s PTC Preventable Accident List, during the last 46 years, NTSB has investigated 145 freight, commuter and transit PTC-preventable railroad accidents. Had PTC been in place at the time of those incidents, the NTSB estimates 300 lives would have been saved and more than 6,700 injuries would have been avoided.1

While the term “Positive Train Control” did not appear until a report by FRA in 1994, the technology is not completely new. Since the early 20th century, rudimentary elements of PTC have existed, and regulators and safety advocates have been calling on the rail industry to implement some form of PTC for decades. In Germany, Great Britain, and France, there has been one form or another of automatic train control since the 1930s.

In 1922, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) used its authority under the 1920 Transportation Act to require railroads to install a train control system on at least one division over which passenger trains operated.

The Order was expanded in 1924 to include an additional passenger division on each railroad. The ICC set minimum standards that required train stop systems to operate automatically and apply brakes until the train was brought to a stop if an engineer failed to acknowledge a restricting signal. A train control system was required to apply the brakes until the train was brought to a stop in the event an engineer failed to take action to control the speed of the train in accordance with signal indications. The railroads petitioned the ICC for approval to install the automatic cab signal system (ACS), which provides warning when signal aspects change to more restrictive aspects, on their line in lieu of a train stop or train control system. In 1930, the ICC approved the cab signal system.3

In 1969, the NTSB issued its first official recommendation on the need for train control technology like PTC after four people were killed and 43 were injured near Darien, Connecticut, when an engineer failed to stop at a red signal and two Penn Central Commuter trains collided head-on.4 In the early 1980s there was a serious and active exploration of implementing PTC by the railroads. In 1984, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the Railway Association of Canada published a report that outlined the core functions that a PTC-like system would be required to perform. During that same decade, BNSF partnered with Rockwell International to develop a system called Advanced Railroad Electronics System (ARES). ARES depended on using wayside equipment and radios like the Advanced Train Control System (ATCS) that was being developed at the same time. However, ARES would rely on Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine train locations. Both systems were eventually abandoned.

In 1990, after years of recommending railroads adopt PTC, the NTSB included PTC on its Most Wanted List – listing Positive Train Control as one of the top 10 most important safety needs for the country. In the 1990s, Amtrak started to deploy Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) on its Northeast Corridor property. By the close of the 1990s, CSX Transportation, Inc. had started to develop a PTC system that added a GPS to provide the exact location of trains.


Today, Positive Train Control is statutorily defined as “a system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position.” 49 U.S.C. 20157(i)(3).

Today’s PTC systems use digital radio communications, global positioning, and fixed wayside signal systems to send and receive a continuous stream of data about the location,

direction, and speed of trains. Such systems process this information in real time to aid dispatchers and train crews in safely and efficiently managing train movements through automatic application of train brakes whenever a train crew, for whatever reason, fails to properly operate within specified safety parameters.

There has been some successful, but limited, deployment of PTC systems in the United States. Amtrak has deployed the Incremental Train Control System (ITCS) on approximately 60 route miles between Chicago and Detroit. BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) has deployed the Electronic Train Management System (ETMS) on a limited number of pilot territories for revenue test and demonstration purposes. The most successful and widely deployed PTC system is the Amtrak Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) currently along certain portions of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

When fully implemented, FRA expects PTC technology to have a positive, transformative, and life-saving impact on rail safety and operating efficiency in the decades to come. By automatically enforcing compliance with speed restrictions and other directives, the installation and operation of PTC systems on critical portions of the Nation’s rail transportation network will positively affect the industry’s already efficient capacity to safely and reliably carry freight and passengers. In the years and decades to come, PTC can help railroads satisfy projected increases in demand for freight and passenger transportation safely and efficiently.

Download full version (PDF): Status of Positive Train Control Implementation

About the Federal Railroad Administration
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was created by the Department ofTransportation Act of 1966. It is one of ten agencies within the U.S. Department ofTransportation concerned with intermodal transportation.  FRA promotes safe,environmentally sound, successful railroad transportation to meet the needs of all customers today and tomorrow.

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