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Photo by Joseph Kaczmarek, AP, Corbis

A Deadline Derailment

​Railroads have come a long way since American inventor John Stevens built the first test track in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1825 and ran a locomotive around it. As trains came to prominence in the mid-19th century, safety and security issues begged to be addressed. Many trains shared the same track and had to keep a schedule to prevent collisions. One of the more advanced technologies for the time was automatic block signaling. These lights tell trains when to stop and go with red and green signals, and were introduced by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1863. The same signal technology is still in use today.

More than a century and a half later, railways have become a backbone of the U.S. economy. There are more than 140,000 miles of track in the United States, and for every person in America, railways move 40 tons of freight every year, according to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). 

Such advancements in the industry have been accompanied by upgrades to safety and security. Going well beyond the 1863 signaling system, a new safety technology called positive train control (PTC) has come into use. PTC is a complex technological system that limits the speed of trains automatically in designated zones using GPS and other communication tools. The technology is important because operator error is cited in many crashes on railways. With PTC, the controls are taken from the driver automatically when the train’s speed is too fast, braking before an accident occurs.

While the benefits of PTC are innumerable, railroads say the technology is expensive, and they have been slow to implement it. However, an increasing number of train-related accidents, injuries, and deaths has led to more scrutiny over the industry’s lack of PTC implementation and ushered America’s railroads into a new era of regulation.

A recent tragedy thrust PTC into the national spotlight. Eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured when an Amtrak train traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York City derailed on May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. The train was traveling at 100 mph when it should have been going 50 mph on a section of curved rail. A previous crash on the same curve killed 79 people in 1943. 

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation concluded that PTC could have prevented the crash. Amtrak had already installed the safety technology on the southbound section of rail on the same curve, but not on the northbound track. Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman referred to the lack of PTC technology on the northbound side as an oversight, and within weeks of the accident the company had installed PTC on both tracks.  

PTC had been on Congress’s mind long before the May 2015 tragedy. Legislators had set a deadline for rail companies to install the automatic braking system on at least 40 percent of railways–roughly 68,000 miles of track–by December 31, 2015.  

Congress arrived at that deadline after a head-on collision in Los Angeles between a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train killed 25 people in 2008. The PTC deadline was outlined in the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008. This technology would be mandatory not only for commuter rails but also for lines moving toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) chemicals.  

But as the December 2015 deadline approached, railways and researchers alike warned that there was no conceivable way PTC would be installed, and urged lawmakers to extend the multibillion-dollar safety enhancement deadline. Industry officials argued that the technology is incredibly complex, and there are few vendors who can install it.


As the deadline approached, experts and industry agreed, the impacts of a U.S. railway shutdown would be far-reaching. When imposing the deadline, “Congress didn’t really know what was at stake,” says Scott Jensen, spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council (ACC). John Thune (R-SD), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, had sent letters to the railroads asking what it would mean for the industry if the deadlines were missed and fines imposed. “The responses that he got by and large from both freight rail and commuter rail is that they would be forced to suspend some or most of their rail service,” Jensen notes. 

Besides the halt to commuter services, the movement of goods and chemicals would also be disrupted. Speaking at a Senate hearing on September 17, Acting FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg pointed out that critical TIH chemicals, such as chlorine used for everyday drinking water, would have to be transported by truck. 

One major railroad, Union Pacific (UP), sent a letter to Chairman Thune expressing its concerns over a halt to the shipping of TIH chemicals, one of its largest cargo materials. CEO and President Lance Fritz wrote that, to avoid the fines for not implementing PTC, UP was planning to embargo the transport of TIH chemicals for several weeks prior to January 1, 2016, “to ensure an orderly shutdown and clear our system of TIH carloads prior to the end of the year.” The letter also called PTC implementation “the largest and most complex technological undertaking ever attempted by the freight industry.”

The ACC conducted research to demonstrate how a halt to rail operations would impact the economy. “Many shippers choose to distribute TIH chemicals by rail considering both safety and efficiency for transporting these hazardous materials,” it said in a September 2015 study. 

“The costs of a major disruption of rail service would be felt immediately in terms of public health impacts, plant and business shutdowns, lost jobs and income, and a drop off in tax revenues for states and local governments,” wrote the ACC. “Should the disruption persist for an extended period of time the economic and social costs would be substantial and the harm caused, irreparable.”

The report, Assessment of the Economic and Social Impacts of the Failure of Congress to Extend the Compliance Deadline for Positive Train Control (PTC), found that the railway industry generated $76.5 billion in revenues in 2014 alone. “There are countless examples of how an efficiently running railroad network is essential to the American economy,” the report said, adding that at least 700,000 jobs would be lost in a shutdown. 

Jensen tells Security Management that the findings of the study were surprising even to researchers. “We had suspicions that [the impact] was going to be pretty large…but they are certainly pretty dramatic and startling findings, particularly when you take a look at it in a prolonged shutdown. We only looked at the impact of one month, but a prolonged shutdown could send the economy into a recession.”​


The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in September 2015 examining where railways stood in terms of implementing PTC. The comprehensive report had several major findings, including that the progress of individual railroads was extremely difficult to determine. The FRA is in charge of overseeing PTC implementation. 

“While these efforts provided some insights into progress being made implementing PTC, their usefulness in monitoring and reporting on an individual railroad’s progress and holding an individual railroad accountable for implementing PTC was limited,” stated the report.

The GAO report points out that PTC communications technologies are in a nascent stage, and it is yet to be determined how railroads can best implement the system with their existing capabilities. “Many of the components are first-generation technologies being conceived, designed, and developed for PTC,” the report stated. “Suppliers have primarily undertaken the development of PTC components, but it is up to the railroads to integrate the components with the existing technology systems.”

Finding the time to do maintenance work on fully operational tracks is also an obstacle to railways. “Installing PTC in an operating environment also poses challenges, as opportunities for installation and testing may be limited, and may require that locomotives be taken out of service,” the GAO stated. “For example, a commuter railroad representative told us that since they only have one track, and must provide six-day commuter service, they can only install PTC equipment during 4-hour windows at night, and on Sundays.” 

Twenty of 29 railroads said that it would take one to five years after the December 2015 deadline to fully implement PTC; three stated they did not have an estimated completion date.

The GAO concluded that the FRA could improve its oversight process to hold the industry more accountable. “Better monitoring and reporting could improve FRA’s effective oversight of railroads’ progress toward achieving full PTC implementation and better ensure the agency holds railroads accountable for their progress.”

Other obstacles to PTC were federal in nature. For example, for PTC to work, 25,000 communication poles and 35,000 wayside interface units needed to be installed through the railway system. But in March 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) halted this installation until historical preservation efforts and tribal impact could be evaluated. In May of 2014, the FCC announced that several of the railroads had been approved to install the poles and interfaces, according to a press release from the agency. ​


In addition to the research pointing to the consequences of trains missing the deadline, lobbying efforts by the railroads were used to help push for an extension. In a November 2015 article, The Washington Post reported that the industry has spent $316 million on lobbying efforts since the RSIA was passed in 2008. 

Groups like the Association of American Railroads (AAR) petitioned Congress to extend the deadline. “Leading up to the 2015 deadline, the industry had been warning Congress that the deadline was unworkable due to the complex system as it was not off-the-shelf technology and had to be developed from scratch,” says Ed Greenberg, spokesman for AAR. The AAR represents mostly freight rail companies, but also a handful of commuter lines, including Amtrak. 

Companies like UP wanted to demonstrate that they were working on PTC technology even though they would not meet the deadline. “Union Pacific is carefully and thoroughly implementing PTC to enhance employee and community safety,” the organization stated on its website. “A dedicated train was used to test and evaluate all aspects of the PTC system in Los Angeles, including wayside devices, radios, communication equipment, onboard systems, and connectivity to UP’s Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha. Test results were mostly favorable from a safety perspective; however, some reliability issues that could negatively impact UP’s ability to serve its customers remain to be resolved or mitigated.” 

In late October of 2015, President Barack Obama signed a highway funding bill into law. An amendment to that law will give railways until 2018 to install the technology. Under the new law, some railways will be given an extension until 2020 under special circumstances. “It’s our responsibility to extend this deadline now, and avoid shutting down much of our rail system,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), who introduced the legislation. 

The industry was quick to applaud the move. “Our industry commends Congress for giving us more time to get PTC fully installed and operational,” notes Greenberg. “The extension provides the certainty American industries and businesses need to serve the millions of Americans who rely on rail every day and means freight and railroads can continue moving forward with the ongoing development, installation, real-world testing, and validation of this complex technology.” 

Greenberg notes that the AAR fully supports the implementation of PTC, but the rail industry needs more time to meet the Congressional requirements. “To show its commitment, freight rail has a team of 10,000 employees, manufacturers, software designers, and safety experts devoted full time to this effort,” he says, adding that the industry has already spent $6 billion on PTC installation, and by the time it is fully implemented, the industry will have spent about $10 billion. 

But the FRA is still cautioning railways that the new deadline is hard and fast. At an annual event called RailTrends, hosted by Progressive Railroading, Feinberg said the 2018 deadline is what the industry should focus on. “Do not aim for 2020,” she told attendees at the November 2015 event in New York City. “Do not assume that Congress will give in and provide another extension.”