Although not all Class I railroads operating across the U.S. that
were mandated to implement PTC by the end of 2018 have yet to fully do
so throughout their networks, some of those that have are already seeing
benefits, industry insiders and observers say.
“For one, they and their suppliers have built up a staff of
technology-savvy resources, which was necessary to implement and support
PTC,” explained Attila Mihalyi, a director with Princeton Consultants,
an information technology and management consulting firm. Mihalyi leads
teams that develop and deploy PTC software solutions on both freight and
transit railroads, and provide software aimed at testing and monitoring
rail signaling systems.
“This new group of railroaders, well-versed in modern technology and
take it for granted, is certain to have a transformative impact on the
future of railroading,” he said. “It may take a bit for the effects to
extend beyond PTC, but I’m convinced that this new generation will
eventually usher in new technologies and new methodologies that will
change how railroads operate and how they service customers.”
PTC implementation involves installing equipment on locomotives and
tracks that communicates information about the train’s speed as well as
the position of the train and track switches. According to the American
Association of Railroads, some Class I railroads operating in the U.S.
have been granted time extensions in order to continue testing of PTC
throughout their networks.
All systems are expected to be fully interoperable no later than the final deadline of Dec. 31, 2020.
As a result of PTC implementation, railroads are upgrading and
expanding their field communications capabilities and their signaling
systems to now have greater remote access and visibility into their
trackside signaling equipment.
“In areas where PTC is deployed, they can now have a live view of
what the signals are displaying and what position the switches are in,”
Mihalyi explained. “This information is in most cases much more detailed
that what was previously available in centralized dispatching systems.”
With this new information at their fingertips, they can now better
detect signal anomalies, increase overall troubleshooting and have much
better signal network awareness, resulting in more reliable and safer
“The implementation of PTC has created a staff, skilled in new
technology, a lot of new operational data, and the communications needed
to get data from the field to the back office, and from there to the
tools for analysis,” said another Princeton Consultants director, Bob
Steen, who focuses on remote PTC assets, communication and security.
“PTC has created a platform that collects more operational data and
communicates effectively with mobile assets – most importantly, the
locomotives,” Steen added. “Once developed further, this data platform
will give customers better views into the status and location of their
loads, and will give suppliers additional information about equipment
performance, reliability and maintenance needs.”
One example of newly available operational data is better fuel usage,
as PTC is providing more accurate and granular consumption numbers.
“The systems on the locomotives are able to monitor additional
information and have the computing power to preprocess this information
onboard and send it to the office efficiently,” Steen explained.
“PTC provides a real-time link to data,” added veteran transportation
industry analyst and financial consultant Anthony B. Hatch, who runs
ABH Consulting. “It can be the backbone of the digital railroad. [It
provides] obvious help for visibility and for preventative maintenance,
which in turn helps reliability.”
Part of the reason why some railroads have been granted extensions
until the end of next year to implement PTC technology is that they plan
on adding it beyond the mandated areas. As of Jan. 1, only two freight
lines, BNSF and Union Pacific, have a federally certified PTC system in
operation on all required route miles and locomotives.
Kansas City Southern and Norfolk Southern are among the rail lines
that have filed for two-year extensions so that they can adhere to the
Federal Railroad Administration’s interpretation of the law, which says
that full implementation status isn’t achieved until all non-railroad
owned trains and equipment operating on PTC-equipped lines are also
BNSF was itself granted a two-year extension by the FRA last September.
“We are actively working with each of the approximately 30 rail-roads
with which we need to be interoperable to identify their needs and how
we can be of help,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy Casas told Insights. “This
assistance ranges from technical, operation and regulatory advice to a
variety of services such as back office hosting and crew training.”
BSNF has achieved interoperability and PTC activation for several
short line railroads, according to Casas, including Montana Rail Link,
Louisiana & Delta Railroad and Dakota, Missouri Valley and Western
One of the underpinnings of PTC is that it forces railroads to share
certain basic train status and other technical information with each
other, thus creating new lines of communication and cooperation.
“The need to share technical information is requiring a high level of
coordination between the railroads’ PTC teams,” Mihalyi said. “PTC has
created multiple interdependencies where one railroad’s operation can be
impacted by the actions of another railroad. As a result, technical
information sharing and ongoing communication between the railroads, is a
must for PTC.”
Steen added that his company’s clients are looking forward to a new
capability some of them will have with PTC: the ability to receive data
from their trains while they are being operated by other railroads
outside of their owners’ network.
As far as the federal role in the information sharing process, with
the railroads already well down the path toward implementation, some say
there’s not much more that the Department of Transportation, FRA or
other federal agencies need to do at this point, other than just monitor
“We are well into the implementation process,” Mihalyi said. “For
now, the FRA could simply ensure that all railroads implement PTC within
a reasonable and achievable timeframe, and let the industry work out
the details as far as information sharing. As long as interoperability
is a mandated condition, the railroads will eventually arrive at the
right amount of information to share, including how best to do so.”
Hatch, on the other hand, said the federal role in the information sharing process should be non-existent.
“None,” he said when asked what part the feds should play. “What role do they play at FedEx?”
Casas would not say whether the railroad felt that there should be
federal involvement in the information sharing process, but did state
that BNSF continues to work with the FRA as it expands interoperability,
and that it will ensure that PTC enhances rail safety wherever it
“The amount of data we are able to collect, and the right algorithms,
will help us make better decisions about the movement of freight along
our network,” she said. “In the future, we are going to see a fully
implemented and integrated PTC network lead to more efficient train
Mihalyi echoed that, predicting that in both the short run and the long run, PTC will prove to be good for the industry.
“Improved rail operations and customer service will ultimately result from this,” he said.