As the federally mandated Dec. 31 deadline draws closer for U.S. railroads to install electronic systems aimed at preventing derailments and crashes, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration says about a dozen rail carriers are “at risk” of missing the target date for putting the systems in place or qualifying for an extension.

Passenger rail lines as a group continue to lag far behind freight carriers in their progress on installing the positive train control (PTC) systems, FRA records show.

Senior Senate appropriators are concerned about the pace of compliance, particularly among commuter railroads, and want FRA to move more aggressively in awarding grants to help railroads fund the PTC work.

FRA’s most recent set of quarterly PTC updates, released on May 15, show that, as of March 31, freight railroads had PTC in operation on 60% of the route miles that require the systems. That’s up from 56% of the mileage at the end of December. In all, 41 railroads are subject to the PTC requirements,

But passenger lines, particularly some commuter systems, are running far behind. Collectively, they had PTC in operation on only 25% of their route miles at the end of March, barely better than the 24% recorded for the previous quarter, FRA said.

Within the passenger rail group, Amtrak reported PTC operational on 67% of route miles as of March 31.

Amtrak also had  94% of the on-board and wayside PTC equipment installed as of the end of first quarter 2018. Ten commuter systems, including the Southern California Regional Rail Authority’s Metrolink and the Philadelphia-area’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority have 100% of the required hardware in place.

But some other commuter lines are lagging.

Appropriations hearing

At a May 16 hearing on rail safety, members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Dept. of Transportation budget spent most of the session discussing PTC. [View hearing Webcast and witnesses' statements here.]

Subcommittee Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was “alarmed” to hear about passenger lines’ 25% PTC installation figure. She said, “It is imperative for railroads to implement this safety system as soon as possible.”

FRA’s administrator, Ron Batory, testified that about 12 of the carriers are “at risk” of missing the Dec. 31 deadline and failing to qualify for an extension of up to two years.

Senate subcommittee member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said she is “deeply troubled” about the number of passenger lines that are in danger of missing the deadline.

The agency sent letters on Apr. 24 to the railroads judged to be at risk. Nearly all of those in that category are commuter lines and include New Jersey Transit, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Metro-North and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

NJ Transit says that since the last FRA report at the end of March, it has made some gains. For example, 309 employees have received PTC training, up from 172 in the FRA first-quarter report. It also has 43 locomotives and cab cars fully equipped, compared with 35.

Jim Smith, an NJ Transit spokesman, said via email: "We continue to add key management staff and forces in the field, to provide the staffing necessary.  At the same time, we continue to hold our prime contractor, Parsons Transportation Group, accountable to keep the project progressing."

Smith added that the transit agency last year began an agreement with Parsons to commit more resources to the PTC program and speed up milestones. He said, "Parsons has implemented a second shift to install equipment onto vehicles and opened a second production facility."

Erin Kuhlman. Parsons' corporate vice president for marketing and communications, said via email, "Parsons is working closely with New Jersey Transit to successfully deliver this project.”

At the Senate hearing, Murray cited a Dec. 18, 2017, rail accident in DuPont, Wash., in which three passengers were killed and 70 people were injured. Murray said that PTC “would have prevented this terrible accident.”

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which has advocated for the train-control system for years, PTC wasn’t operational at the time of the accident.

Batory said having railroads implement PTC is “at the top of our agenda.” He added that FRA plans frequent contacts with the at-risk railroads over the coming months.

Federal grants

FRA also announced on May 15 the start of the application period for $250 million in federal PTC grants. The funds were part of the 2018 omnibus spending package enacted on March 23.

Batory said FRA had cut the application period for the new round of grants to 45 days from the usual 90 days, “because time is of the essence and there has to be a sense of urgency.”

But the Senate subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Jack Reed (R.I.), criticized FRA for not also making available another $300 million or so in rail grants contained in the omnibus measure. Reed said those funds could go for PTC work as well as other railroad improvements.

Batory said that since 2008, FRA has provided more than $2.5 billion in PTC grants or loans to railroads. He noted that the agency had issued another funding-availability notice, published in February, for $68 million in grants. PTC work is one of the eligible uses for those grants.

Freight railroads spent $8 billion of their own funds on PTC as of yearend 2017, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act mandates PTC installation, setting a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline. But as it became clear that many railroads wouldn’t meet that goal, Congress in October 2015 gave them an extension of at least three years. It also provided for an extension of a further two years, subject to U.S. DOT approval.