FRA Issues Rule on Train Control Systems

A new federal rule issued Tuesday on automated train management systems allows railroads to wrap up their implementation plans in time for an April deadline, the Federal Railroad Administration said.

The FRA's final rule governing "positive train control" systems sets the boundaries for how freight as well as passenger rail lines meet a requirement to install the high-technology upgrades by the end of 2015 as required by Congress.

But Congress also wrote into a 2008 law an intermediate deadline for railroads to say by April 16, 2010, how they intended to deploy PTC.

Those control systems would tie in a mix of onboard devices, track signaling and distant traffic dispatch technology to prevent trains from colliding in case cab crews fail to stop a train in time.

With railroads objecting in the past decade that PTC systems were too costly to deploy, the FRA judged that safety benefits did not justify the large investments. It took steps to help develop and encourage the use of PTC systems but did not require them.

However, Congress ordered it after a September 2008 crash in which a commuter train in California struck a freight train, killing 25 people. The new law orders it on passenger rail lines, freight rail lines that share tracks with passenger service, and on freight operations handling certain highly toxic cargoes.

"Safety is our highest priority, and we believe the installation of this equipment will make our nation's railroads safer," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. PTC would also help avert derailments caused by excessive speed, accidents caused by human error or misaligned switches and harm to roadway workers, DOT said.

In its final rule, the FRA overrode railroads' argument against requiring a separate PTC screen display for each crew member in the cab. Long-haul freight trains operate with two-person crews - a conductor and engineer - although only the engineer operates the locomotive.

But it gives Amtrak greater discretion than in the FRA's earlier proposed language to offer exceptions that might limit where it has to deploy PTC. Amtrak said the costs of PTC could be so high on low-traffic rail lines that states supporting those light-use lines might not be able to afford it.

The final rule also allows the FRA to set a minimal exception to when freight lines have to install PTC for hauling hazmat loads.

- John D. Boyd, The Journal of Commerce Online