Why We Need PTC, and How Some Railroads are Already Moving on It

Next Generation Communications Blog

Why We Need PTC, and How Some Railroads are Already Moving on It

By: Paula Bernier, TMC Executive Editor

I’ve always thought of trains as one of the safer modes of transportation. But recent high-profile train accidents remind us that even vehicles on tracks can run into problems that can result in crashes, with potential results including death, injury, and property loss.

You may remember the tragic Amtrak accident on May 12 in Philadelphia. It killed eight people and injured more than 200 others. The train derailed while taking a curve for which the maximum recommended speed was 50 miles per hour, but preliminary analysis from the National Transportation Safety Board indicates the train was moving at 102 miles per hour. This wreck put new focus on the need for positive train control, better known as PTC, systems.

The NTSB has been talking about the need to improve railway safety with PTC since 1969.  However, when two Penn Central commuter trains collided head on, killing four and injuring 43 things heated up due to the increased national attention. In fact, it should be noted that the NTSB in 2014 put out a “most wanted list” on which implementing PTC systems ranked first. The list also noted at least six other railroad accidents from 2008 to 2012.

“PTC systems work by monitoring the location and movement of trains, then slowing or stopping a train that is not being operated in accordance with signal systems and/or operating rules,” the NTSB explains. “This safety redundancy prevents train-to-train collisions and overspeed derailments, as well as the associated injuries and fatalities to passengers, railway workers, and others.”

Yet for all the talk about the need for PTC systems, and the fact the government has set requirements regarding the installation of PTC systems, most U.S. railroads will fail to install positive train control by the Dec. 31 federally mandated deadline, notes Thierry Sens, marketing director of the transportation segment at Alcatel-Lucent in a recent TrackTalk article, Give PTC* the best chance of success with IP/MPLS.

That said, PTC systems do exist. Toward the middle of this year an estimated 14,300 of the 22,000 locomotives in the U.S. were partially equipped with PTC, Sens says. Plus, 19,000 of the 32,600 wayside interface units and 1,800 of the 4,000 base station radios required for PTC had been installed since the government in 2008 ordered PTC be installed on lines carrying hazardous materials or passengers.

As the NTSB paper notes, PTC systems are in use on the Northeast Corridor and on the Michigan Line between Chicago and Detroit. And as Sens discusses, Norfolk Southern is also among the organizations moving PTC forward by upgrading its communications network to IP/MPLS.

The IP/MPLS network allows the railroad, which is one of the nation’s largest (with a 34,600km network), to separate and prioritize traffic, and provides the resiliency required for the important PTC function via its fast reroute, link aggregation group, non-stop routing, and non-stop services capabilities. Alcatel-Lucent’s ADSL+ solutions, integrated access devices, microwave technology, and Service Access Routers power the Norfolk Southern IP/MPLS network, which was first deployed in 2010 and now operates in 22 states.

“PTC is the right thing for the U.S. railroad industry, particularly following recent high-profile accidents,” says Sens. “It will prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, unauthorized incursions on track where maintenance is taking place and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position. Its interoperability features are also a critical element of an efficient and successful rail network.”

Attorney Barlow Keener agrees. As he mentions in a recent INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine column, railroad safety and railroad viability are both for railroad companies and their riders, as well as for the American economy itself. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, he notes, 140,000 miles of U.S. railroads deliver 40 percent of all national freight.

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