March 20, 2003

CHICAGO (March 20)–UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo was among many rail union, management, and supplier representatives present March 5 when the Federal Railroad Administration’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) met in Philadelphia to review the status of Positive Train Control technologies designed to prevent train collisions and crew deaths. This group is in the final stages of developing a Positive Train Control regulation.

Two of the projects discussed at the Philadelphia meeting are in the state of Illinois: The Illinois Department of Transportation currently is installing its North American Joint Project on 118 miles of Union Pacific track between Dwight and Springfield for use by Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis trains, and the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad wants to test another collision-prevention technology on 136 miles of freight-only trackage between Beardstown and Centralia.

“This is something RSAC has been working on for six years now,” Szabo said. Although the March 5 meeting was Szabo’s first formal participation with the group, he noted that Representatives from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees have been meeting along with UTU’s RSAC Team since RSAC’s inception in November, 1997 to discuss the evolving technology.

“The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing aggressively for PTC systems as a lifesaving measure since 1996 following a series because of many collisions that resulted in employee deaths,” Szabo said. “The Appropriations Conference Committee of the two houses of Congress has mandated the FRA issue a report on PTC by October 1, 2003. And the National Transportation Safety Board has had a standing recommendation for the last six years that PTC be widely implemented to prevent train-to-train collisions. The suppliers have been offering collision-prevention technologies for 70 years. Now that the technology has evolved to a virtually fail-safe level of reliability and effectiveness, the government wants to see it implemented. The fatigue issue that continues to figure in so many accident reports also is driving the need for additional safety systems.”

At least five varieties of Positive Train Control already are in operation on several thousand miles of U.S. railroad main lines. A very early version, known as Automatic Train Stop, dates back to the 1920s and uses an induction coil next to the track to activate a train’s air-brake system if the front end of the train passes a block signal displaying a red stop indication. The older technology is still in use on parts of the Union Pacific, BNSF and Norfolk Southern systems.

The most recent versions of the technology employ Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) or trackside monitors to locate the front and rear ends of trains, calculate train speeds and apply brakes automatically if one train gets too close to another or runs past a red signal.

Although the newer technologies perform the same functions as those dating from 70 years ago, they rely on advanced electronics that require promulgation of new rules before a system can be implemented.

“Positive Train Control is very similar to the old Automatic Train Stop system in the way it is experienced by the train crews,” Szabo said. “It’s an overlay on the existing dispatching and signaling system, not a replacement for it. Engineers and conductors are still responsible for making sure their trains observe speed limits and that they stop at signals displaying a red indication. T&E crews also continue to be responsible for assuring that their trains moves only in territory for which they have received a Track Warrant.

“The PTC overlay is not actuated unless a train violates one of those parameters,” Szabo said. “If a violation does occur, the PTC system performs only one function: It stops the train. Once the train has stopped, the crew re-assumes control. While this technology cannot replace the many duties a train crew performs, it does stop trains and save lives.”

Szabo said BNSF wants to test a GPS-based system known as Quantum Train Sentinel on 136 miles of its Beardstown Subdivision between Beardstown and Centralia. Of the 136 miles, 114 are unsignaled “dark railroad” governed by Track Warrant. The balance of the mileage is protected by Automatic Block Signals (ABS) and governed by Centralized Traffic Control (CTC). Some, but not all, of the railroad’s trains operating over the Beardstown Sub, will be fitted with Train Sentinel computers during the one-year test period.

In addition to stopping trains that violate a stop signal, Train Sentinel can stop trains in non-signaled territory if they approach too close to one another. It also can detect open switches and trains that have failed to clear at a siding and can stop an approaching train before it reaches those hazards. A new technology known as Train Lok developed by Union Switch & Signal makes it possible for the system to detect open switches and broken rails even in non-signaled territory. BNSF has indicated it plans to implement Train Sentinel systemwide if this technology performs as advertised.

Other forms of Positive Train Control include Communication Based Train Management, which is being tested used on parts of the CSX system; and two technologies used by Amtrak on lines which it owns. Rockwell’s Incremental Train Control System is in service on 70 miles of track on the Chicago-Detroit line through southwestern Michigan, and the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) governs train movements on Amtrak’s high-speed Northeast Corridor linking Washington, New York and Boston.

“The FRA and the NTSB are stepping up the pressure on the rail industry to install more Postive Train Control,” Szabo said. “This technology saves lives by preventing collisions between trains, protecting against overspeed even in temporary speed restrictions, and protecting roadway workers. And although the up-front costs of installing the technology are considerable, the railroad will earn those initial costs back quickly because of the tremendous savings realized from eliminating fatalities, injuries and destroyed equipment. PTC systems also offer many other operational advantages in addition to eliminating the tremendous disruption to systemwide operations caused by train to train collisions. The carrier will never again have to face the huge insurance payouts to victims and their families or the large losses of property and revenue that occur whenever trains collide.”

Szabo said the union is pleased that the FRA’s RSAC process assures rail labor a place at the table “to insure that this technology is implemented in such a way that it benefits our members.”