There is no Shelf

Over the last couple of weeks I have been dealing with PTC a little bit more than usual, and mostly on the political side. Shortly before Railroad Day on Capitol Hill there was the House hearing on the Amtrak accident in Pennsylvania, and when we went to visit the members of the New Jersey delegation, PTC was a major point of discussion.Now before we get into the point of contention, let’s put the simple things aside. No one is arguing with the PTC requirement, and no one is saying that they are not going to do it, or can’t do it.So where did the discussion start? It was about when. December 31 this year is the deadline imposed by Congress, but it is one that was set on paper, and one that doesn’t take into account the realities of deploying a system like PTC.There is no such thing as an off the shelf PTC system. In fact, when the RSIA of 2008 was put into law, most of the equipment that makes up PTC wasn’t even a drawing in someone’s computer. To say that there has been a herculean effort by the railroads and the suppliers to make this technology a reality is an understatement. Now that there is a menu of equipment, it is up to those same people who were doing the development to now make the those pieces fit in the puzzle that makes up the railroad, and get everything built and installed. But that doesn’t end the story. Once you get everything in place, then you have to make it work.Right now most of the Class I railroads are in the install it and make it work stage. The problem is that it is taking time to do it properly, and while our leadership in Washington has heard that PTC will be the big safety revolution in railroading, they don’t exactly have the patience while there are still accidents that this system could have prevented happening.So what was the message that we tried to communicate? Give us the time we need, and you will get the system you want. We all know what the law says, but what is the purpose of penalizing the industry for not meeting the deadline when they are spending their own funds to meet an unbelievably expensive mandate for which the solution didn’t fully exist when the mandate was imposed? This is the time to stop beating your shoe on the table, and come up with a sensible process that will allow the railroads to do the job properly. Yes, let the FRA oversee the process, but don’t start making threats unless it is really needed.The fact is, we are still building the store so that there is a shelf.---By Steve Friedland
steven-fb.jpgSteve Friedland is a well-known leader in the short line industry who has devoted more than two decades to railroading. At the Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR's Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA's board of directors.