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Rail News: Positive Train Control

NTSB's 'most wanted' list for 2013 includes PTC implementation

Yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its 2013 "Most Wanted List" of desired safety improvements in the transportation industry.

Many of the issues on the list call for ending distractions in all modes. Distraction was the cause of multiple accidents investigated by the NTSB in recent years, "and its deadly effects will only continue to grow as a national safety threat," board members said in a prepared statement.

"Transportation is safer than ever, but with 35,000 annual fatalities and hundreds of thousands of injuries, we can, and must, do better," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. "The Most Wanted List is a roadmap to improving safety for all of our nation's travelers. We're releasing the list now so it is available to policymakers at the state and federal levels, as well as industry groups as they craft their priorities for 2013."

The 10 issues cited in the Most Wanted List are: improving the safety of airport surface operations; preserving the integrity of transportation infrastructure; enhancing pipeline safety; implementing positive train control (PTC) systems; eliminating substance-impaired driving; improving bus operation safety; eliminating distractions in transportation; improving fire safety; improving general aviation safety; and mandating motor vehicle collision avoidance technologies.

Although human error cannot be eradicated, PTC can supplement the human operation of trains, NSTB officials said.

"For positive train control to reach its greatest safety potential, it must be implemented on all passenger and freight trains," they said. "With this technology, even if the train operator has fallen asleep or is distracted in some way, human lives will not be at risk."

During a press conference announcing the most wanted list, NTSB officials recognized Metrolink as a national leader in PTC implementation, according to officials at the commuter railroad. The agency is working with Amtrak, BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad to install PTC in southern California, and is on schedule to fully implement the technology in 2013.

After the NTSB released the list, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) issued a press release to stress the railroad industry's commitment to implementing PTC by the mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 2015. So far railroads have spent more than $1.5 billion in private capital to try to implement the technology.

But there still are significant challenges to doing so, AAR officials said. Implementation of PTC on the scale required by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 has not been done anywhere in the world, they said.

"The mandate and implementation of PTC is an unprecedented undertaking and, despite nearly a decade of research and development, still faces significant hurdles to deployment," said AAR President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hamberger. "The PTC system being designed and implemented by the railroads and suppliers is being created from scratch."

In addition, PTC systems must be fully interoperable, or able to seamlessly operate on all railroads' systems. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and railroads have been working together to find solutions to technical challenges in order to meet the 2015 deadline. But the FRA, railroads and others have acknowledged that unresolved issues make that date unrealistic, AAR officials said.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 11/15/2012