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Positive Train Control (PTC) ‘implementation delays’ rears its ugly head again

Once again, a we have a recurring nightmare, a train operator incident causing a deadly train accident, lives lost, many injuries— lives could have been saved with Positive Train Control (PTC).

On September 13, 2008, 25 train passengers died as a train blew through a red signal. On May 13, 2015, an Amtrak train derailed at 106 mph while rounding a sharp curve. The latest incident killed three and injured 100 passengers as a train derailed and onto a busy highway traveling at twice the speed limit.

But the US Congress ordered all passenger railroads to install PTC by 2016! Well, Congress has since extended that deadline, and people are still needlessly dying. Why? Because there is a high cost and complexity to add PTC to trains and trackside areas. What price do we put on a life, or a family’s grieving the loss of a loved one?

Read more about PTC here: [Advanced-communications-system-for-mobile–fixed-and-Wi-Fi-applications-will-save-lives]

To be fair, Amtrak has installed the PTC technology on the Northeast corridor run between Boston and Washington. But that is not enough. The majority of other passenger rail lines such as Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit do not yet have it.

A map showing the route an Amtrak train traveled and subsequently derailed in 2015 in the Philadelphia area. The holes in PTC coverage are obvious in the image shown. (Image courtesy of NY Times | Sources: Federal Railroad Administration; National Transportation Safety Board)

A map showing the route an Amtrak train traveled and subsequently derailed in 2015 in the Philadelphia area. The holes in PTC coverage are obvious in the image shown. (Image courtesy of NY Times | Sources: Federal Railroad Administration; National Transportation Safety Board)

The list of crashes and derailments goes on and on. See this list of accidents on Amtrak since 1971 on Wikipedia.

Will an improved solution help?

Safety, capacity, and timely schedules are necessary in railway operations. Positive train control (PTC) improves the safety and efficiency of railway operations by using advanced information technologies. Information technologies such as active communications enable the use of a dynamic headway policy, which can increase the track capacity and improve dispatching efficiency in addition to improving safety. The Dynamic headway layer means that each train uses communicated information from the leading train on the same track and the control center in order to calculate its dynamic headway.

The headway between two trains is defined as the distance from the front of the following train to the front of the leading train. For safety purposes, the size of the headway is chosen to be large enough in order to provide sufficient time and space for the train operator to slow down and stop the train without a collision. This is just like driving on a highway, except a train operator cannot normally see the front train or an obstacle at a distance in front of them. The operator may not have the time and distance to avoid a collision—they rely on signals and signs.

Read more about PTC and train safety here: [Train-safety-technology-could-have-saved-lives]

In Reference 1, designers propose a dynamic headway system for PTC based on active communications, which is integrated with a dynamic dispatching model to improve track capacity and safety in railway operations. A simulation model of a rail network in southern California to demonstrated the effectiveness of this proposed approach. The simulation results of different scenarios show reductions in train delays of at least 55% and reductions in travel time of at least 35% when using the dynamic headway versus using a fixed headway. Can this help passenger train companies to adopt this PTC system more quickly?

It may be a complex challenge, that is understood, but too little implementation occurring too late means more lives will inevitably be lost until the extended deadline of December 31, 2018—-that’s if the date is not extended again due to financial hardships or the added two-year possible extension that can be reviewed and granted on a case-by-case basis.

Reference

1 Positive Train Control with Dynamic Headway Based on an Active Communication System, Yanbo Zhao, and Petros Ioannou, IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON INTELLIGENT TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS, VOL. 16, NO. 6, DECEMBER 2015

2 Technology Available for Train Safety Right Now Could Have Saved Lives

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