Positive Train Control:

Additional Authorities Could Benefit Implementation

GAO-13-720: Published: Aug 16, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2013.

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What GAO Found

To install positive train control (PTC)--a communications-based system designed to prevent certain types of train accidents caused by human factors-- almost all railroads are overlaying their existing infrastructure with PTC components; nonetheless, most railroads report they will miss the December 31, 2015, implementation deadline. Both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have reported that most railroads will not have PTC fully implemented by the deadline. Of the four major freight railroads included in GAO's review, only one expects to meet the 2015 deadline. The other three freight railroads report that they expect to have PTC implemented by 2017 or later. Commuter railroads generally must wait until freight railroads and Amtrak equip the rail lines they operate on, and most of the seven commuter railroads included in this review reported that they do not expect to meet the 2015 deadline. To implement PTC systems that meet the requirements of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), railroads are developing more than 20 major components that are currently in various stages of development, integrating them, and installing them across the rail network. AAR recently reported that by the end of 2012, railroads had spent $2.8 billion on PTC implementation. To implement PTC, AAR estimates that freight railroads will spend approximately $8 billion in total while the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) estimates that commuter railroads will spend a minimum of $2 billion. Much of the work to implement PTC remains to be done. For example, AAR reported that as of the end of 2012, about a third of wayside interface units, which are needed to communicate data, had been installed and that less than 1 percent of locomotives needing upgrades had been fully equipped.

Most railroads report they will not complete PTC implementation by the 2015 deadline due to a number of complex and interrelated challenges. Many PTC components continue to be in various stages of development, and in order to ensure successful integration of these components, railroads must conduct multiple phases of testing before components are installed across the network. Also, some railroads raised concerns regarding FRA's limited staff resources in two areas: verification of field tests and timely certification of PTC systems. Commuter railroads face additional challenges such as obtaining radio frequency spectrum, which is essential for PTC communications. By attempting to implement PTC by the 2015 deadline while key components are still in development, railroads could be introducing financial and operational risks. For example, officials from railroads and FRA said that without adequate testing, PTC systems might be more prone to reliability issues. To mitigate risks, provide flexibility in meeting the PTC deadline, and better manage limited resources, FRA has requested that Congress amend RSIA to provide additional authorities in implementing PTC. Specifically, FRA requested authority to extend the deadline on certain rail lines, grant provisional certification of PTC systems, and approve the use of alternative safety technologies in lieu of PTC. Flexibility in extending the deadline for certain railroads acknowledges differences in railroads' implementation schedules and may also help FRA better manage its limited resources by, for example, preventing a potential review backlog resulting from most of the railroads' submitting final safety plans at the same time--a concern raised by both freight railroads and FRA.

Why GAO Did This Study

In the wake of a 2008 commuter train collision that resulted in 25 fatalities, RSIA was enacted. It requires major freight railroads, Amtrak, and commuter railroads to install PTC on many major routes by the end of 2015. PTC implementation, overseen by FRA, is a complex endeavor that touches almost every aspect of train operations on major lines. According to FRA, 37 railroads are required to implement PTC. GAO was asked to examine the status of PTC implementation. This report discusses, among other things, railroads' implementation of PTC to date and the challenges, if any, to meeting the 2015 deadline. GAO interviewed representatives from Amtrak, the four largest freight railroads, and seven commuter railroads, selected to represent a mix of locations, ridership levels, and PTC implementation status. GAO also interviewed PTC experts and suppliers, and reviewed FRA's PTC regulatory impact analyses.

What GAO Recommends

Given the implementation challenges railroads face in meeting the deadline, and to help FRA manage its limited resources, Congress should consider amending RSIA as FRA has requested. Specifically, Congress should consider granting FRA the authority to extend the deadline on certain rail lines on a case-by-case basis, grant provisional certification of PTC systems, and approve the use of alternative safety technologies in lieu of PTC to improve safety. DOT reviewed a draft of this report and provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or flemings@gao.gov.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated the implementation of positive train control (PTC) systems by December 31, 2015, on railroad "mainlines" used to transport inter-city rail passengers, commuters, or any amount of certain toxic materials. PTC technology can automatically slow or stop a train that is not being operated safely due to some types of operator errors or a switch left in the wrong position. In 2013, GAO reported that most railroads indicated they would not complete PTC implementation by the December 31, 2015 deadline due to a number of complex and interrelated challenges, including PTC components that were in various stages of development and the need for railroads to conduct multiple phases of testing before components were installed to ensure successful integration. Railroads also raised concerns regarding the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) limited staff resources to verify field tests and timely certification of PTC systems. By attempting to implement PTC by the 2015 deadline while key components were still in development, railroads could have been introducing financial and operational risks. In its August 2012 report to Congress, FRA noted that in the event Congress chose to amend RSIA, Congress should consider granting the agency additional authorities to help them conduct oversight more effectively.. Furthermore, both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA) supported FRA's request for additional authority and extending the PTC implementation deadline to December 31, 2018. Given the implementation challenges railroads faced in meeting the deadline, and FRA's request, GAO recommended Congress consider amending RSIA, granting FRA the authority to extend the deadline on certain rail lines on a case-by-case basis. On October 29, 2015, the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015 (PTCEI Act) was signed into law. The legislation extended the original statutory deadline for implementing PTC systems to at least December 31, 2018. The law also authorized the Secretary of Transportation and FRA by delegation, to provide on a railroad-by-railroad basis, up to a two-year, additional extension if the railroad can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary that it has fulfilled statutory prerequisites. As a result, FRA is in a better position to manage its limited resources and help railroads mitigate risks and ensure PTC is implemented in a safe and reliable manner.

    Matter: To help ensure that the Federal Railroad Administration manages its limited resources and provides flexibility to railroads in implementing PTC, Congress should consider amending RSIA as requested in the FRA's August 2012 PTC Implementation Status Report to Congress, including granting FRA the authority to extend the deadline on individual rail lines--when the need to do so can be demonstrated by the railroad and verified by FRA--to grant railroads incremental deadlines based on a case-by-case basis.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated the implementation of positive train control (PTC) systems by December 31, 2015, on railroad "mainlines" used to transport inter-city rail passengers, commuters, or any amount of certain toxic materials. PTC technology can automatically slow or stop a train that is not being operated safely due to some types of operator errors or a switch left in the wrong position. In 2013, GAO reported that although most railroads GAO spoke with said they have worked closely with FRA throughout the PTC implementation process, some railroads cited concerns with FRA's limited staffing resources impact on the timely certification of PTC systems. Before a railroad can operate a PTC system in revenue service, it must be FRA certified, and FRA must approve the railroad's final safety plan. FRA set no specific deadline for railroads to submit the safety plans. FRA and railroads have expressed concern that railroads would submit their final safety plans to FRA at approximately the same time, resulting in a potential review backlog particularly since each plan was expected to consist of hundreds of pages of detailed technical information. FRA officials told GAO that they were dedicated to the timely approval of safety plans and that their oversight would not impede railroads from meeting the deadline. However, railroads reported that their time frames were based on a quick turnaround of approvals from FRA. In its August 2012 report to Congress, FRA noted that in the event Congress chose to amend RSIA, Congress should consider granting the agency additional authorities--including the authority to grant railroads provisions certification of PTC systems to help them conduct oversight more effectively. Granting railroads provisional certification of PTC systems could help FRA conduct oversight more effectively and assist the agency in managing its limited staff resources. Furthermore, both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA) supported FRA's request for additional authority to provide provisional certification of PTC systems under controlled conditions before final system completion. Given the implementation challenges railroads faced in meeting the deadline, and FRA's request, GAO recommended Congress consider amending RSIA, granting FRA the authority to provide provisional certification of PTC systems under controlled conditions before final system completion. On October 29, 2015, the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015 (PTCEI Act) was signed into law. The legislation extended the original statutory deadline for implementing PTC systems to at least December 31, 2018. The law also authorized the Secretary of Transportation and FRA by delegation, to provide provisional certification of PTC systems under controlled conditions before final system completion. As a result, FRA is in a better position to manage its limited resources and more effectively oversee PTC implementation.

    Matter: To help ensure that the Federal Railroad Administration manages its limited resources and provides flexibility to railroads in implementing PTC, Congress should consider amending RSIA as requested in the FRA's August 2012 PTC Implementation Status Report to Congress, including granting FRA the authority to grant provisional certification of PTC systems under controlled conditions before final system completion.

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of August 2017, Congress had not taken any action regarding this Matter for Congressional Consideration.

    Matter: To help ensure that the Federal Railroad Administration manages its limited resources and provides flexibility to railroads in implementing PTC, Congress should consider amending RSIA as requested in the FRA's August 2012 PTC Implementation Status Report to Congress, including granting FRA the authority to approve the use of alternative safety technologies in lieu of PTC to allow railroads to improve safety and meet many of the functions of PTC through other means.

 

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