Why Can’t PTC Be Expedited?


 It will be weeks before there any conclusions about the New Jersey Transit accident yesterday morning. What we do know is that one person was killed and 109 were injured.
 
We also know that Positive Train Control almost certainly would have prevented this accident. It’s a GPS-based system that pinpoints the location of a train, monitors its progress, and can override the engineer if necessary.
 
Following a deadly 2008 collision in California, the government decreed that railroads—freight, passenger and commuter—had to implement PTC by the end of 2015. The trouble is, the system is hellishly expensive and the railroads asked for additional time to implement the system.
 
One estimate—reliable one— is that it will take $3.5 billion to have PTC up and running across the country just for commuter railroads. That’s a big number and one we cannot reasonably expect the commuter railroads to pull from their rainy day fund.
 
So the railroads turned to the federal government for help and Congress authorized more than a billion dollars over five years for “railroad safety technology”. But guess how much Congress has actually appropriated. Right . . . zero, zip, nada!
 
The Federal Railroad Administration requires all railroads to provide periodic status reports on their PTC installation and, this past July, New Jersey Transit’s report appeared to indicate they had made very little progress. Here’s what an informed source said on that subject:
 
[New Jersey Transit is] “in the process of buying radio spectrum for their PTC equipment to use. They have no locomotives fully equipped and PTC operable, no track segment installations completed, no radio towers installed and equipped, no employees trained, no route miles in testing or revenue service demonstration and no PTC miles in operation.”
 
A lot of questions are going to be asked. For instance, did New Jersey Transit drag its feet on implementing PTC? If so, why? These investigations are very thorough and it will probably be a year before a definitive conclusion as to the cause of the accident can be announced.
 
In the meantime, how about additional some funding from Congress so the railroads can finish up the installation of their PTC systems.