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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
With the federally mandated implementation deadline a little more than four years away, dozens of U.S. freight and commuter railroads continue to work on multiple fronts to develop, test and implement their positive train control (PTC) systems in time. The problem is, many of them predominantly still are focused on the first part of that three-pronged mission.
Much of the train management systems, 220 MHz radios, wayside interface units, back office communication devices and other components needed to implement a complete PTC system still haven’t been fully developed, and it could be a year or more before all initial R&D for every part and parcel is completed.
Then, lab testing will need to be completed to work out any software, algorithm or other problems for each component, followed by extensive field testing to determine how each operational element functions under various conditions, such as hot and cold temperatures, dry and wet weather, or low and high train speeds. Installation only can occur when all the components pass muster in the testing phases.
But even then, no one is sure if all the separate and complex parts of a PTC system will work in tandem as designed, says Frank Lonegro, president of CSX Technology Inc.
“There are 10 major components to PTC being made by 10 different people, and once we plug it all in, we don’t know how it all will work together, “ he says. “In a perfect world, you wouldn’t install everything until it’s all available, but some things aren’t ready yet.”
Nonetheless, more than 30 freight and commuter railroads are plowing ahead with their implementation plans; originally, 41 railroads were impacted by the PTC mandate, but several short lines have obtained Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) waivers that have significantly reduced or virtually eliminated any required work. Two passenger railroads — Amtrak and Metrolink — even expect to substantially complete installation by 2012’s end.
To post further implementation progress, many railroads are monitoring several regulatory developments. The FRA plans to release revisions to its final implementation rule sometime next year to address certain situations and conditions identified by several railroads, and then issue a report on implementation progress to Congress by 2012’s end.
There’s the matter of potential federal funding assistance, too, as in whether Congress will come up with measures that would help railroads cover their collective cost for PTC, which is projected to exceed $10 billion.
Several federal legislators already have proposed bills including amendments that would extend the mandated deadline beyond 2015. Norfolk Southern Railway Director of Advanced Train Control Systems Tom Schnautz is “hopeful” such legislation is enacted because implementing PTC at a rapid pace “exposes the industry to the danger of making poor choices,” he says.
“We’re not putting five things in a lab and seeing how they work, it’s hundreds and thousands of things, and we might find that some of them aren’t reliable,” says Schnautz. “Having different flavors for different scenarios leaves us with gaps in implementation.”
However, without the luxury of knowing whether they’ll have one or more years beyond 2015 to complete implementation, railroads have no choice but to continue pursuing their PTC systems at as accelerated a clip as possible.
CSX Technology’s Lonegro expects Wabtec Corp. to develop the Class I’s train management system by early next year and MeteorComm L.L.C. to develop the rail industry’s 220 MHz radio by mid-2012. However, CSX will conduct pre-production tests on the radios before then, he says.
In the meantime, the Class I plans to complete all bracing, wiring and cabling work in 3,600 locomotives prior to installing the train management system and radios in the motive power at a later date.
“We will take a two-touch strategy, but it means having to shop the locomotives twice,” says Lonegro.
CSX also is taking a different approach to ensuring its signals are PTC-compatible, at least in terms of the amount of work required. CSX officials previously estimated that 20 percent of the Class I’s signals would need to be replaced, but that percentage now is “significantly higher,” says Lonegro.
The age of each railroad’s signal infrastructure spans from brand new to 70 years old, a signal system that works well for traditional railroad operations, he says.
“For PTC, the signals need to be microprocessor-based,” says Lonegro.
In addition, CSX is pursuing wayside interface units (WIUs), the PTC message “translators” for trackside switches and signals. The railroad will need internal WIUs for microprocessor-based signals and external stand-alone WIUs for signal systems that are 25 to 50 years old and not microprocessor-based, says Lonegro.
Lab testing is under way on a GE Transportation internal WIU, and an external WIU is expected to be ready for lab testing by year’s end, he says.
In terms of the back office portion of CSX’s PTC system, Wabtec and ARINC Inc. are developing the components, which could be ready in late 2012, says Lonegro. Into and during next year, the Class I also plans to continue electronically “fly-mapping” every detail of its network from a helicopter and adding GPS devices to all locomotives to pinpoint locations and distances between objects along track.
To complete all implementation work, Lonegro estimates it will cost CSX a previously projected $1.2 billion, but “there will be puts and takes” that could increase or decrease the price tag, he says.
Norfolk Southern’s implementation costs are estimated to total “just shy of $1.2 billion,” says NS’ Schnautz.
The Class I has received type approval from the FRA for its I-ETMS system, an interoperable system being developed by Wabtec that will be installed by about 20 freight and commuter railroads, he says.
After the railroads develop their I-ETMS systems, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) will oversee the interoperability aspect of the systems, and set rules and standards, says AAR Assistant Vice President of Media and Public Relations Holly Arthur.
Lab testing on portions of NS’ system should begin by year’s end and carry over into 2012, says Schnautz.
“We will do some field testing next year, perhaps later in 2012 depending on the lab testing and software,” he says.
For now, the railroad is posting progress with various internal processes, such as training workers and staging materials.
“Getting the organization and processes in place is what I call ‘filling the pipeline,’” says Schnautz.
The workforce also needs to be molded into a “production-line environment” to ensure the installation of wayside devices and other implementation work is done as efficiently as possible, he says.
“What we’re struggling with now is that monitoring devices are not fully available as products yet, and the [lack of] radio equipment availability,” says Schnautz. “Everybody is inventing stuff and there’s big push for new technology — it’s unprecedented.”
Meanwhile, BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad continue to help push implementation for southern California’s Metrolink — which aims to become the first railroad in the nation to adopt the technology by installing PTC on the 216-mile, publicly owned portion of its network by 2012’s end — while they pursue their own implementation plans. Metrolink’s PTC system will be based on BNSF’s and UP’s interoperable systems.
“We are moving forward with wayside implementation in the L.A. Basin and will meet the 2012 deadline,” said BNSF spokesperson Suann Lundsberg in an email, adding the Class I continues to advance its own I-ETMS system.
The end of 2012 also is a key timeline for Amtrak, which expects to complete PTC installation on its owned lines by then. The national intercity passenger railroad has used an Alstom-developed Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) for more than 10 years and a GE Transportation-developed Incremental Train Control System (ITCS) in Michigan for more than a decade, and the FRA already has approved both systems.
So, Amtrak has an implementation advantage versus other railroads, says Keith Holt, Amtrak’s deputy chief engineer for communications and signals.
Last month, the railroad completed ITCS installation on its line between Kalamazoo, Mich., and Porter, Ind., after all testing was completed. Amtrak has requested expedited system certification and type approval from the FRA, which might be received by year’s end, says Holt.
“The FRA nod will enable us to raise train speed from 95 mph to 110 mph,” he says, adding that the 95 mph limit has been in place for several years.
On the NEC, Amtrak has installed 90 percent of the necessary number of transponders and all radio houses for PTC.
The railroad also has purchased 220 MHz radios, which feature a different message format than the 220 MHz radios to be used by the Class Is, says Holt. Constant messaging isn’t required for Amtrak’s and commuter railroads’ PTC systems as it is for Class Is, he adds.
However, Amtrak plans to install WIUs that are common to the interface units large railroads will use; the WIUs will send Amtrak messages in an ACSES format and Class Is messages in an I-ETMS format, says Holt. Amtrak expects to begin installing 150 WIUs — which were purchased from Alstom — in spring 2012.
Although the railroad is on pace for implementation well before the mandated deadline, work still will need to be completed to add an I-ETMS overlay and equip Chicago’s Union Station for I-ETMS — tasks that will be performed beyond 2012, says Holt.
In addition, Amtrak obtained a lease agreement from CSXT to operate and maintain about 100 miles of the Albany line from Poughkeepsie to Hoffman, N.Y., and expects to soon obtain a lease agreement from the state of Michigan to operate and maintain a line between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, both of which will require PTC, he says. Those installations would occur after 2012.
All the implementation work on Amtrak-owned lines and locomotives will cost about $150 million, Holt estimates.
Implementation costs are much lower for a number of short lines that obtained waivers from the FRA and no longer are required to install PTC on any trackage, such as the Minnesota Commercial Railway.
Amtrak sought the waivers because the passenger railroad would have been responsible for the cost of any improvements, says Steve Powell, senior vice president of the Buckingham Branch Railroad Co., which hosts Amtrak trains on a portion of its 200-mile network.
The Buckingham Branch also obtained a waiver, but still might need to spend $50,000 to $150,000 to retrofit some locomotives, depending on if the FRA deems that work necessary, he says.
In addition, the short line will await the FRA’s decision on whether PTC will be required in yard limits or if the railroad needs to install power derails, says Powell.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Rail System (VRS) also has an approved wavier and is in the preliminary stages of discussions with state of Vermont officials on PTC implementation, said General Manager Brent Brewer in an email. The state owns the majority of VRS’ trackage in Vermont.
A number of commuter railroads have a much firmer handle — and further jump — on their PTC requirements. For example, Trinity Railway Express (TRE) plans to purchase the I-ETMS system and already has issued a solicitation for an implementation overview consultant. The firm should be hired in the next six months, says Norma Navarro, vice president of commuter rail and railroad management for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which operates TRE in partnership with the Fort Worth Transportation Authority.
The commuter railroad needs to install a complete PTC system on 34 miles of track that has to be interoperable with BNSF’s and UP’s systems, she says.
“We have approached BNSF about obtaining their track database, and purchasing their documentation and training procedures,” says Navarro.
TRE officials also have met with Metrolink executives because the California railroad’s plan to install PTC by 2012’s end is a “litmus test of sorts,” and Metrolink will install the same I-ETMS system to be interoperable with BNSF and UP, she says.
In early 2013, the railroad plans to issue a solicitation for a contractor, who would be responsible for a turnkey solution and system certification, says Navarro.
TRE previously estimated PTC installation costs at $500,000 per mile, but the price tag has risen slightly of late. The railroad might work with local partners, such as the Denton County Transportation Authority, to generate cost savings, and any extension of the federal deadline would help TRE’s cash flow, says Navarro.
The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) expects implementation to cost “at least $20 million,” says UTA Senior Program Manager Todd Provost, who oversees rail projects.
The agency needs to install PTC on 45 miles of existing FrontRunner commuter-rail track to the north as well as on 45 miles of track UTA is building to the south from Salt Lake City to Provo that’s scheduled to open in a few years.
Since 2008, the railroad has used a GE “carborne” system to help prevent train-to-train collisions and overspeed derailments, but UTA will need supplemental systems to cover two other PTC requirements: accident prevention in work zones and proper switch-position movements, says Provost.
In the existing north system, where UTA has seven miles of jointly used track with UP, two locomotives and cab cars will feature I-ETMS capability; in the soon-to-be-built southern extension, UTA plans to install an Alstom system.
“We will start in the south first because it’s not in service and we can get it implemented in time, “ says Provost. “In the north, design is rolling.”
As implementation draws closer, a key issue for UTA is recruiting enough qualified technical workers to complete the work, such as testers, installers and communications experts, he says.
“The Class Is will get the most attention from those people,” says Provost. “How do we get those folks?”
For now, perhaps the biggest question that railroads need answered is whether or not the federal deadline will be extended. As CSX Technology’s Lonegro puts it: “Some people in Congress have questioned the reasonableness of 2015.” An extension would be ideal because all railroads could use more time for R&D and implementation.
“Ultimately, we’d have a more mature system,” says Lonegro. “And more time to do more tests.”
Email questions or comments to Jeff Stagl