Freight and passenger railroads are closing in on their target of having collision-preventing automatic train control systems up and running on their routes by the congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31, the Federal Railroad Administration has reported.

In releasing the results of railroads’ third-quarter updates on Nov. 18, FRA also said one rail system, New Jersey Transit, is at risk of not having positive train control (PTC) systems fully operational on all main lines by year's end.

But Parsons, NJ Transit’s PTC contractor, says that the railroad is “on target” to meet the deadline and cites gains made since Sept. 30.

Overall, FRA says that railroads’ latest self-reported quarterly submissions show that on one key benchmark, PTC systems were operating or in advanced field tests on 99.6% of the 57,537 route miles subject to the federal requirements.

In the third quarter, railroads activated PTC on an additional 468 route miles, raising their combined completion level by 0.8%.

FRA also said that as of Sept. 30, commuter railroads had PTC in operation on 92.3% of their route miles, a gain of 16.2% from the second-quarter level.

Amtrak said that as of that date, it had the safety systems operating on its mainlines that are subject to the PTC mandate, closing the final small gap during the period.

Major freight railroads already had hit full operation on their PTC-mandated routes before the quarter.

“Full implementation of PTC is in sight, owing to everyone’s unparalleled cooperation and determination," said FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory, in a statement. “Once complete, railroads, rail workers and rail passengers will all benefit from this transformational accomplishment in railroad safety.”

Some commuter and Amtrak trains run on track owned by freight railroads, so interoperability of PTC systems by the track owner “host” and passenger or commuter line “tenant” also is a key PTC requirement.

The third-quarter reports show that interoperability has been achieved by 84% of the 219 relevant host-tenant railroad relationships. That represents a gain of 18.6% in that quarter.

NJ Transit, a major commuter line to New York City, said it has made gains since its third-quarter report that showed it had PTC in field tests, or revenue service demonstration status, on only about 48% of its route mileage as of Sept. 30.

Jim Smith, an NJ Transit spokesman, told ENR in a Nov. 18 email that the rail system “continues to work closely with the FRA as we advance our PTC project toward full implementation by Dec. 31.”

Smith also noted that in a briefing before the NJ Transit board on Nov. 12, Parsons had laid out “a timeline to full [PTC] implementation by the end of the year.”

He added that NJ Transit officials “intend to hold [Parsons] fully accountable to meeting that deadline.”

According to a Parsons document prepared for the board briefing, five of NJ Transit’s 14 lines had not yet completed extended field tests as of Nov. 12. Its Lehigh Line entered the revenue field tests Nov. 11.

Two others were expected to begin tests the week of Nov. 16. That would increase NJ Transit compliance with that requirement to 80% of its PTC-mandated route miles.

The Parsons document said the last two smaller lines, Atlantic City and Southern Tier, are “on target” to be in revenue tests in early December. A Parsons project official also told Nov. 12 that interoperability tests with Amtrak, which shares rail lines in New Jersey, "have been successful so far."

PTC is a safety system that combines on-board and wayside equipment and devices that can automatically regulate train speeds and help prevent collisions or derailments.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency, has for years been pushing PTC. The NTSB has said that fully operational PTC systems could have prevented fatal rail accidents in recent years.

In 2008, Congress passed legislation to require PTC installation by the end of 2015. But as that date neared, it was clear most railroads would miss the deadline. Congress set a new endpoint of Dec. 31, 2018, and allowed FRA to grant extensions, but only through the end of 2020.