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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Positive Train Control (PTC): Overview and Policy Issues

Jeffrey C. Peters
Research Associate

John Frittelli
Specialist in Transportation Policy

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA08) requires implementation of positive train control (PTC) on railroads which carry passengers or have high-volume freight traffic with toxicor poisonous-by-inhalation hazardous materials. PTC is a communications and signaling system that has been identified by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as a technology capable of preventing accidents caused by train operator or dispatcher error. PTC is expected to reduce the number of accidents due to excessive speed, conflicting train movements, and engineer failure to obey wayside signals. It would not prevent incidents due to trespassing on railroads’ right-of-way or at highway-rail grade crossings, where the vast majority of rail-related fatalities occur.

Under RSIA08, PTC is required on about 60,000 miles of railroad track by December 31, 2015. Many railroad companies are uncertain of their ability to fully implement PTC by this deadline. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimates full PTC implementation will cost approximately $14 billion. Although the larger freight railroads are well along in planning for PTC, some smaller railroads and commuter lines have not yet identified sources of funding for implementation.

PTC uses signals and sensors along the track to communicate train location, speed restrictions, and moving authority. If the locomotive is violating a speed restriction or moving authority, onboard equipment will automatically slow or stop the train. A more expansive version of PTC, called communications-based train control (CBTC), would bring additional safety benefits plus business benefits for railroad operators, such as increased capacity and reduced fuel consumption. However, CBTC is not currently being installed by any U.S. railroad, due to the additional cost and to uncertainty about implementation of PTC before the 2015 deadline.

Two bills introduced in the 112th Congress, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21; S. 1813), as approved by the Senate, and the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 7), approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, would have extended the deadline and made other policy changes. No language relating to PTC was included in the final surface transportation bill (P.L. 112-141) enacted on July 6, 2012. However, existing law requires the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to report to Congress about the status of PTC implementation by December 31, 2012. If it wishes to reexamine the PTC mandate, possible options for Congress include

• postponing the implementation deadline;

• considering whether to make dedicated radio spectrum available to the railroads for PTC implementation and, if so, how to compensate current license holders of that spectrum;

• examining possible alternatives to PTC and their potential to create barriers to competition in the rail freight market; and

• providing federal financial support for PTC implementation by making PTC projects eligible for funding under the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Funding Program or by appropriating other funding to FRA, as authorized in RSIA08.

Date of Report: July 30, 2012
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R42637
Price: $29.95

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