By R. Bruce Striegler

On February 26 2012, VIA Rail passenger train No. 92 travelled east from Niagara Falls to Toronto, on track two of the Canadian National Oakville Subdivision. Beyond the stop at Aldershot Station, the track switches were lined to route the train from track two to track three. The last signal required the train to proceed at 15 mph, however VIA 92 entered the crossover at about 67 mph, causing the locomotive and all five coaches to derail. The operating crew was killed; 44 passengers and the VIA service manager were injured. About 4,300 litres of diesel fuel spilled from the locomotive fuel tank.

In the ensuing investigation, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) analysis focussed on more than ten critical factors, including “alternate forms of train control.” The reference is to a relatively new technology called positive train control (PTC). This system works through a combination of wireless communications networks, global positioning systems, and onboard computers with in-cab displays along with throttle-brake interfaces, and communication units at switches and wayside detectors that allow trains to communicate with a centralized control centre.

Trains equipped with PTC report their position, speed and other relevant data to the control centre through a wireless data link. The control centre uses the data from the trains in its sector to alert conductors about track changes and issue movement and speed limits, while maintaining a safe separation between trains based on their speed, size, weight and other variables. Besides slowing and stopping trains that are cruising too fast, positive train control could also be used to prevent collisions between trains (since the system would know where each train is), keep trains from rolling into work zones, and stop trains from cruising through track signals left in the wrong position. The TSB noted in its investigation reports that the technology, “has the potential to significantly reduce collisions between trains.”

Developed in the 1980’s, PTC an expensive technology to implement

The genesis of positive train control (PTC) technology dates back to the mid-eighties, when the Association of American Railroads and the Railway Association of Canada developed and partially implemented an advanced train control system that promised integrated communications, commands and controls for railroad operations, as well as the ability to keep trains separated by a safe margin. Since 2002, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended the adoption of PTC as a rail safety system, and cited its lack as a contributing factor in 16 specific train accidents. Those accidents resulted in 37 fatalities, 637 injuries and more than $72.5 million in damages to trains, property and the environment.

Railway operators south of the border continued to develop similar automated train technologies independently, but it was not until the passing of the Rail Safety Improvement Act in October of 2008 that PTC was required to be implemented on most U.S. railroad networks by December 31, 2015. Like many American railroads, both CN and CP found that meeting the congressionally mandated implementation date would be impossible, and facing fines of as much as US$25,000 a day, turned to Congress for an extension. On Sept. 9, 2015, CP President and Chief Operating Officer Keith Creel wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. John Thune, member of the congressional transportation committee to address CP’s position on extension of the positive train control mandate. “Despite our best efforts, CP will not meet the Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for PTC to be operational on many of our routes set by Congress as part of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.” Adding their voice, the Association of American Railroads, of which CN and CP are members, asked Congress to delay the implementation deadline. Similarly, quoted in published reports, CN spokesperson Mark Hallman said, “The industry says it will not be in a position to implement the technology before 2018, with a further two years of testing required to ensure full interoperability.” The Association of American Railroads contends that PTC systems will cost railroads over $13 billion to install and maintain over a 20-year period. For every dollar the system returns in safety-related benefits, it will set rail operators back by $20.

Mr. Hallman pointed out the Montreal-based company is planning to spend $550-million to install the technology on 6,100 kilometres of U.S. mainline and 1,000 locomotives, but much of it is being developed “from scratch.” Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. estimates it will cost $328-million to outfit its U.S. network, two-thirds of which has already been spent. Hallman continued noting, “Safety is the industry’s top priority, but installing such a complex system of systems requires time to perfect the required technology, for rigorous testing, for proper training of thousands of employees and for the collaborative efforts among rail carriers necessary to enable the fully interoperable PTC system mandated.” Canadian Pacific and Canadian National will be installing almost 2,700 and just under 6,000 kilometres, respectively.

While American railways, and those Canadian railways operating in the U.S. are legally mandated to adopt PTC systems, no such legislation exists or is even on the table in Canada.

Some Canadian politicians have called for legislation to mandate PTC systems. Canadian Sailings contacted Transport Canada to enquire whether or not a new government may have different ideas about PTC. Transport Canada responded, saying, “Most urban rail transit systems in Canada have some form of automated train control. This includes the ability to automatically track movements and the locations of trains. Transport Canada is closely monitoring the U.S. experience with PTC in order to better understand the challenges of implementing this type of technology and is working with industry to assess what type of train control technologies could be applied in Canada to the greatest benefit.”

North American railroads get an extension for implementation

Including the 2012 report, referenced at the beginning of this article, the TSB said it conducted five different investigations in recent years that found misinterpretation of signals caused or contributed to collisions or derailments. As a result of those investigations, the TSB recommended Transport Canada implement “fail-safe” train controls, such as positive train control, on high-speed rail corridors. “Additional defences that have already been developed … would have prevented this accident,” the TSB said.

Meanwhile, in October 2015, Congress passed the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2015, which provided a three-year extension for installation of PTC. The new law also allowed up to two additional years to finalize full implementation and testing of PTC provided the railroads meet specific benchmarks. Railroads will regularly report to the US Department of Transportation on their progress. At the time, the Association of American Railroads said that developing and implementing the system across a 96,500-kilometre rail network is an “unprecedented technical and operational challenge,” adding that railway companies have collectively spent $5-billion installing the on-board locomotive systems, track-side signals and related technology.

The technology is not-off-the shelf, and has been developed from scratch. Engineering experts note that PTC isn’t just about plugging in or turning on components. Rather it is a complex step-by-step process, both in terms of safety engineering and implementation. The same engineers say that field testing of PTC is essential for safely deploying the technology and will be a critical focus for the rail industry. A February 2016 report in Railway Age magazine points out that currently, rail operators are discovering failure rates of up to 40 per cent as they install and test PTC equipment in PTC labs and designated pilot territories. The technology will be overlay systems, meaning they will supplement existing train safety checks and balances.

A good system, but not infallible

While PTC may represent the best in train safety as far as current technology affords, it is not flawless and, on its own, will not prevent all rail incidents. Information from the United States Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) indicates that PTC systems have the ability to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into work zones and train movement through a misaligned or improperly lined switch.

However, the technology is not able to prevent low-speed collisions from permissive block operations (where trains may continue on a line even though it is occupied, as long as it is slow enough to stop safely); shoving accidents or bumping into something when a train is reversing; derailments caused by a mechanical failure in the train or track; or grade crossing and track incursion collisions.

For many in the industry, the need for automated train controls in Canada was underscored by the fatal Via Rail 2012 crash in Burlington, Ont. The Transportation Safety Board’s investigation concluded the crew misinterpreted the signals and failed to slow the train in order to safely make a crossover to an adjacent track. A spokesperson from Transport Action Canada, a public transportation advocacy group in Ottawa, notes that, “Until an automated, physical defence system is in place as a fail-safe against operator mistakes, fatal derailments like the one in Burlington, although rare, remain a very real risk for those who work and ride on Canada’s rails.”