Moving Forward Down the Track: The Implementation of Positive Train Control on America’s Railways

By: John A. Villamaria


On September 12, 2008 a head-on collision between a passenger train carrying 225 passengers and a freight train in Chatsworth, California resulted in the death of 25 people while leaving another 135 people injured. The head-on collision was the result of engineer error.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, as amended by the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015, imposes requirements on railroad companies to install Positive Train Control (PTC) technology on designated rail lines by the end of 2018. This paper discusses the applicable federal legislative requirements relating to PTC.

PTC is a computerized system which utilizes controls on-board the train (called “locomotive on-board technology”) and controls installed along the tracks (called “wayside systems”) that interact with back-office systems which work together to control the speed, acceleration, and braking of a train in the event the engineer is not operating the locomotive within safe limits. Congress passed this legislation with the belief that PTC will reduce, if not eliminate, train collisions and prevent speed derailments caused by human error.

The first railroad was chartered in theUnited States in 1828. Since that time the railroad industry has played a significant role in facilitating the free flow of commerce throughout the United States. Exercising its authority under the Commerce Clause, the federal government passed the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 which granted the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over regulation of the rail industry.

Due to the inherent danger of operating a rail line, Congress has passed several pieces of legislation, beginning in the late 1800’s, to regulate the railroad industry and promote the safe operation of railroads. Today the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) within the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) is tasked with promoting safe, environmentally sound, successful railroad transportation. A major issue theFRA is working to combat in the railroad industry is the occurrences of derailments and head-on collisions which result in the death and/or injury of train passengers. To combat these accidents, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 which mandated that PTC technology be installed and operating on routes that carry passengers and/or toxic-by-inhalation commodities by December 31, 2015. In late 2015, under the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act, which amended in part the Rail Safety Improvement Act, Congress extended the deadline for all railroads by at least three years to December 31, 2018, with the possibility of an additional two years (December 31, 2020) for the testing and fine tuning of an already installed and at least partially operational PTC system.

By requiring PTC technology to be installed on rail lines, Congress hopes to drastically reduce accidents by improving safety on railroad lines in the United States. However, the high cost of installing PTC technology along rail lines and on-board locomotives together with providing for interoperability across varying PTC platforms have caused delays in fully implementing PTC technology on Class I railroads, short line and regional railroads, as well as commuter rail lines.

This paper discusses the efforts the rail industry, together with the FRA, have taken to ensure PTC is implemented and fully operational across America and the further steps that need to be taken. In the wake of the 2008 Chatsworth head-on collision, the Amtrak derailment in 2017, and numerous other crashes, it is imperative for PTC technology to finally be implemented and fully operational on railroad tracks across the UnitedStates by the deadline date.


I.      History of the Railroad Industry in the United States. 4

A.     First Railroad Chartered. 5

B.     Protection Under the Commerce Clause; Interstate Commerce Act Of 1887. 5

C.     Safety Appliance Act 6

D.     Deregulation of Railroads. 7

1.     Number of Class I Railroad Carriers Today. 8

2.     Emerging Market of Short Line and Regional Railroads. 8

II.     Regulation of the Railroad Industry in the United States Today. 9

A.     Interstate Commerce Termination Act of 1995. 9

B.     Department of Transportation Act of 1966. 10

C.     Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970. 11

D.     Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. 11

1.     Class I Railroads 11

2.     Short line and Regional Railroads. 13

3.     2008 Chatsworth Train Crash. 13

4.     2017 Washington Amtrak Derailment 15

E.     Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015. 16

III.       Positive Train Control Implementation. 17

A.     Explanation of Positive Train Control 17

B.     Elements of A Positive Train Control System.. 19

C.     Compliance with the Act 20

1.     Burlington Northern Santa Fe. 20

2.     Union Pacific. 21

3.     New Jersey Transit 23

IV.       Problems Experienced by Railroad Companies With Implementation. 24

A.     High Cost of Implementation. 24

B.     Interoperability of PTC Systems Across Varying Platforms. 25

V.     Assistance From The United States Department of Labor. 27

A.     Financial Assistance For Railroad Companies to Assist with Implementation. 27

B.     Technical Assistance Provided by the FRA. 29

VI.       Call For Action. 30


The promulgation by Congress of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 requires the implementation of Positive Train Control on railroad lines across America. Part I explains the history of the railroad industry in the United States beginning with the first railroad chartered in the early 1800’s to the present number of Class I rail common carriers and the emerging market for short line and regional railroads. Part II discusses the regulation of the railroad industry today, the rules requiring Positive Train Control implementation, and the head-on train collision and derailment behind the requirement. Part III explains what Positive Train Control is, what it requires of Class I, short line, and commuter railroads, and what certain Class I railroads and a commuter railroad have done to comply with the requirement. Part V discusses what Congress has done to expedite the implementation of Positive Train Control. Finally, Part VI calls for action to encourage the railroad industry to embrace the new technology, continue their implementation efforts, and use their best efforts to meet the deadline date in order to save lives and for the FRA to consider the options available to them with the deadline date approaching while continuing to work together with the railroad industry to assist companies in achieving implementation.

I. History of the Railroad Industry in the United States

By providing a means for social, economic, and political change in the United States, the development of a railroad system was one of the most important developments during the Industrial Revolution.[1]Noticing that railroads had the ability to decrease the cost of shipping by carriage by 60-70 percent, Americans returning from England were eager to construct rail lines in America.[2]

A.             First Railroad Chartered

The city of Baltimore, the third largest city in the nation in 1827, had not yet invested in a canal, but realized that the development of a railway could make the city more competitive with New York and the Erie Canal to transport people and goods to the West.[3]As a result, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was chartered as the first railroad in the United States.[4]From the inception of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, more railroads quickly followed despite opposition from canal companies, stagecoach companies, and even tavern owners.[5]Stagecoach and canal companies believed the railroad would take customers away from their business, making them obsolete.[6]The tavern owners opposed the railroad because they believed the railroad would cause less people to pass through their town, which in turn would lead to less people utilizing their services.[7]The economic benefits of the development of railroads prevailed the opposition from transportation competitors and tavern owners and the Transcontinental Railroad, which allowed goods and people to cross the entire United States, was developed by the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific in 1869.[8]

B.             Protection Under the Commerce Clause; Interstate Commerce Act Of 1887

In response to the rapid development of railroads in the 19th Century and protests from small businesses and farmers that railroads charged them higher rates than larger corporations, and for short hauls compared to long-distance hauls, Congress approved the Interstate Commerce Act (ICA) on February 4th, 1887.[9]Before the promulgation of the Interstate Commerce Act, states such as Illinois began to adopt their own railroad regulatory schemes which the Supreme Court struck down.[10]In Wabash v. Illinois, the Supreme Court held that the state of Illinois could not restrict the rates of the railroad because its traffic moved between the states and only the federal government could regulate interstate commerce. [11]The ICA applied the Constitution’s Commerce Clause which granted Congress the power “to Regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States” to regulate rates charged by railroads for their services.[12]The ICA required railroads to publish their rates, ensure their rates were reasonable and just, forbade rebates to high-volume uses, and made it illegal for railroads to charge higher rates for shorter hauls.[13]In addition, the ICA created the Interstate Commerce Commission which heard evidence and rendered decisions on individual cases.[14]Although the Interstate Commerce Commission was abolished in 1995, it served a significant importance in expanding the application of the Commerce Clause to railroads operating between the States.[15]

C.             Safety Appliance Act

The move towards strict governmental regulation as a means to ensure safety on America’s railroads led to the enactment of the Safety Appliance Act.[16]After the industry’s unregulated growth after the Civil War, unsafe work practices used by railroad employees led to the number of employees killed or injured on railroads in the eight years prior to the passage of the first Safety ApplianceAct to be equal to the number of people employed by the railroad in a single year.[17]In response to the staggering number of deaths, new technology such as power brakes and automatic couplers were pursued.[18]The first Safety Appliance Act, requiring the use of power brakes on all trains and railcars used in interstate commerce to be equipped with automatic couplers, drawbars, and handholds, was passed by Congress and signed into law on March 2, 1893.[19]After the first act, Congress passed two more Safety Appliance Acts to improve safety on America’s railroads by extending the requirements under the first act to any rail equipment used in interstate commerce and requiring that all vehicles used on the railroad be equipped with safety features including hand brakes, sill steps, running boards, ladders, and roof handholds.[20]The availability of technology and the ability to regulate the railroad industry allowed Congress to pass laws that protect the safety of railroad workers.

D.            Deregulation of Railroads

While the railroad industry attempted to grow, the over-bearing regulatory scheme of the Interstate Commerce Commission effectively stifled that growth. In 1920, railroads accounted for 75 percent of all intercity freight movements, but by 1975 the railroad accounted for only 35 percent.[21]Due to the highly constrained environment, by 1960 nearly one third of the U.S.rail industry was bankrupt or close to failure.[22]The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 dramatically changed the federal regulatory scheme in almost every aspect of rail freight operations.[23]The act provided railroads with freedom to set their own prices, the ability to abandon unprofitable lines, consolidate with other carriers, and also permitted confidential contracts with shippers.[24]The Staggers Rail Act, through deregulation, in large part allowed for the revitalization of and newfound growth of the railroad industry.

1.              Number of Class I Railroad Carriers Today

Class I railroads work together with hundreds of smaller railroads to deliver economic growth, support job creation and provide environmental benefits such as reduced highway traffic and cleaner air.[25]With 163,464 employees and track networks of 95,264 miles, BNSF Railway, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, and the Union Pacific account for nearly 70 percent of U.S. freight rail mileage and nearly 90 percent of railroad employees.[26]Operating over multiple states and thousands of miles of track each, the seven ClassI railroad’s total operating revenue reached $70 billion in 2017.[27]These seven Class I railroads operate in 44 countries and mostly focus their operations on long-haul intercity traffic.[28]

2.              Emerging Market of Short Line and Regional Railroads

While generally not operating the amount of track miles of a Class I railroad, short line and regional railroads play an important role in America’s integrated, nearly 140,000 mile system that is the world’s safest, most productive, and lowest-cost freight rail service.[29]A combination of deregulation and Class I railroad’s business model to adhere to long haul service, allow short line and regional railroads to fill a niche in the rail industry. Together, short line and regional railroads account for 31 percent of U.S. freight rail mileage and 10 percent of employees.[30]Short line railroads play an important role in the freight operations system by feeding traffic to and receiving traffic from Class I carriers for final delivery to customers.[31]Two of the largest short line railroad holding companies in the United States are Genesee and Wyoming, Inc., which owns or leases 121 short line railroads worldwide[32]and Watco Companies, LLC which owns 39 railroads operating in the United States and Western Australia.[33]Covering more than 5,100 miles of track and shipping more than half a million carloads annually, Watco Transportation Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of Watco Companies, is the largest privately owned short line operator in the United States.[34]While their operations are not seemingly as large as Class I railroads, short line and regional railroads play an important role in America’s railroad system.

II. Regulation of theRailroad Industry in the United States Today

A.             Interstate Commerce Termination Act of 1995

With the termination of the Interstate Commerce Commission by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act of 1995 (ICCTA),[35]the regulation of rate and service disputes was entrusted to the U.S. Department of Transportation from the Interstate Commerce Commission.[36]Simultaneously with the ICCTA, the Surface Transportation Board (STB) was created and granted jurisdiction not only over railroad rate and service issues, but mergers, line sales, line construction, and line abandonments as well.[37]The STB is permitted to investigate rail service issues of regional and national significance.[38]

B.             Department of Transportation Act of 1966

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was granted authority to implement the Safety Appliance Act when the FRA was created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966.[39]The FRA is an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation tasked with regulating the safety of America’s railroad system, carrying out the railroad safety laws of the United States, developing and enhancing partnerships with the freight and passenger railroad industry, and developing a long-range national rail plan.[40]The FRA’s stated mission is “to enable the safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods for a strong America, now and in the future.”[41]The FRA accomplishes its mission by developing and enforcing safety regulations, investing in passenger and freight rail services and infrastructure, as well as researching and developing innovation and technology solutions.[42]

C.             Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970

The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970[43]gave the FRA specific authority over safety related matters on railroads and the ability to identify violations of the law and penalize violators.[44]The act’s purpose was to “promote safety in all areas of railroad operations and to reduce railroad related accidents and to reduce deaths and injuries to persons and to reduce damage to property caused by accidents involving any carrier of hazardous materials.”[45]Under the act, the FRA is able to assess civil penalties for each violation of the regulations under the act; negotiate the penalties with the railroad charged with violations; and also to conduct research, development, testing, evaluation and training for all areas of railroad safety.[46]Overall, the passage of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 provided the FRA with broad regulatory authority to address all areas of railroad safety, the ability to implement national uniform safety standards, call for state participation in enforcement of national railroad standards, and the ability to address emergency situations by issuing sanctions.[47]

D.            Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008

1.              Class I Railroads

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA),[48]among other requirements, requires Positive Train Control to “be installed and operated (1) on lines over which intercity rail passenger transportation or commuter rail passenger transportation is regularly provided and (2) on freight-only rail lines if they are part of a Class I railroad system, carrying at least 5 million gross tons of freight annually, and carrying any amount of poison- or toxic-by-inhalation material.”[49]Under the RSIA, railroads who are required to implement PTC must have their systems fully implemented by the deadline date of December 31, 2015.[50]Before the system may be installed on the rail line, the Rail Safety Improvement Act requires that by April 16, 2010 each Class I railroad and each entity that provides regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation submit a plan of implementation on certain lines to the FRA for review.[51]The FRA then must review the plan and either approve or disapprove that plan within 90 days.[52]The railroad must then implement PTC systems on their lines in accordance with that plan.[53]

While many railroad lines fit the requirement for mandatory PTC system installation, the FRA provided for certain exceptions and exclusions from mandatory PTC implementation for railroads. Those exceptions include a de minimis poison-by-inhalation exclusion for low volume Class I tracks that carry no passenger traffic, operations that are low speed in passenger yards and in terminals where the trains are either empty or no freight operations are permitted and reverse movements are restricted, and an exception for limited passenger operations where track speeds are restricted or the passenger trains are operated under a mitigation plan.[54]

In addition to approving or disapproving plans, conducting annual reviews to ensure railroads are complying with their plans of implementation, and issuing regulations that are necessary to implement PTC, the RSIA allows the FRA to require PTC systems on lines other than those specified in the statute as the FRA sees necessary and to assess civil penalties to railroads for failure to submit a plan of implementation or failure to comply with its previously submitted plan.[55]

2.              Short line and Regional Railroads

Since short line and regional railroads often interchange with Class I lines or are granted trackage rights to operate over Class I lines during their hauls, they often will be required to install PTC on their locomotives. However, a short line or regional railroad is not required to install PTC on its locomotives when operating on a Class I track equipped with PTC if “the track segment has no regularly scheduled intercity or commuter passenger rail traffic, or if it does have such traffic, the applicable PTC system permits the operation of a non-equipped train; the operations are restricted to four trains a day; and the train movement is less than 20 miles or if the movement is greater than 20miles, the non-equipped operations may continue only until December 31, 2020.”[56]Further, a short line or regional railroad is not required to install PTC on its respective line if the freight traffic is less than 15 mgt per year and if the line does not have signals, no more than four regularly schedule trains operate per day or if the line is signaled, no more than twelve regularly scheduled passenger trains operate per day.[57]If the short line or regional railroad does not fall within the exceptions outlined above, they are required to install PTC systems on their locomotives or rail lines as required in the RSA.

3.              2008 Chatsworth Train Crash

With the requirements and exceptions of Positive Train Control outlined, the question of what could cause such strict and cumbersome requirements in the rail industry presents itself. A head-on collision between a Metrolink passenger train carrying 225 passengers and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatswoth, California, caused rescue teams to frantically search for the dead and injured bodies and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to find what caused this horrific accident.[58]After an investigation, a NTSB report concluded the head-on collision between the Metrolink and Union Pacific freight train was caused when the Metrolink engineer ran a red light while sending text messages from his cell phone resulting in the death of 25 people and another 135 injured.[59]The Union Pacific freight train spotted the Metrolink passenger train emerging from a tunnel and engaged the emergency brakes two seconds before impact.[60]As both trains were traveling 40 miles-per-hour,[61]the brakes had little or no effect on the force of the crash. The human error, which was the cause of the head-on collision, is the exact type of error that Positive Train Control technology is aimed to prevent.[62]Art Leahy, CEO of Metrolink, said nine years after the crash that “the incident had a profound impact on the Metrolink team and serves as motivation for us to operate the safest system possible. Metrolink was the first commuter rail in the nation to install…life-saving Positive Train Control technology…on passenger cars.”[63]Not only did the collision have an impact on rail operations at Metrolink; the rail industry as a whole felt the impact and acknowledged the need for change. The Chatsworth head-on collision is what pressed the FRA, following the NTSB investigation, to set a deadline for all passenger trains and freight trains carrying hazardous materials to install PTC by 2015. While Metrolink accomplished full implementation before the deadline date, some railways have continued to request delays, which forced Congress to push the deadline date back to December 31, 2018.[64]

4.              2017 Washington Amtrak Derailment

Nearly ten years after the Chatsworth head-on collision and the passage of the RSIA, yet another preventable deadly crash occurred on one of America’s railroad lines. On December 18, 2017, nearly two years after the original implementation deadline, an Amtrak train traveling at 78 miles-per-hour along tracks posted at 30miles-per-hour derailed killing three people on the train and injuring another sixty-two passengers.[65]In addition to the sixty-two injured passengers, another eight people were injured below the overpass where their cars were forced to leave the interstate below. [66]The Amtrak train was on its first passenger-service trip along tracks which were expected to reduce the travel time between Seattle and Portland by ten minutes.[67]The NTSB reported that six seconds before the derailment off a bridge and onto a highway, the engineer of the Amtrak train noticed the train was speeding and applied the brake, but failed to apply the emergency brake.[68]According to the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, which owns the tracks along the accident site, an automatic-braking system was installed on the line but the technology was still being tested when the train derailed.[69]Through its investigation of the crash, which the NTSB estimated to cost over $40 million, the NTSB determined that had the Positive Train Control system been operational, the crash that killed three and injured seventy more could have been prevented.[70]After the incident, Amtrak officials said it was “…imperative that the rail industry urgently work together to get PTC activated on the national network as soon as possible – and certainly by the December 2018 federal deadline, if not before.”[71]After the Amtrak derailment, it is even more clear that Positive Train Control technology plays an integral part in saving the lives of people along America’s railways.

E.             Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015

Two years before the Washington Amtrak derailment in 2017, Congress passed The Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015 (PTCEI).[72]The PTCEI is an amendment to the RSIA which requires Class I railroads and entities providing regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation to implement PTC systems on certain main lines by the updated deadline of December 31, 2018.[73]The amendment requires railroad companies mandated to install PTC systems on their main lines to submit a revised PTC Implementation Plan by January 26,2016 outlining when and how the company will have the system fully installed and working.[74]

In total, 41 railroads are subject to the PTC implementation mandate as required by statute and must implement FRA-certified PTC systems by the new deadline date.[75]As of January 2, 2018, of those 41 railroads required to comply with the RSIA, only 12 railroads have completed installation of all hardware necessary for PTC system implementation.[76]As some railroads have complied with the statute, another 12 railroads have reported having less than 50 percent of the hardware required for their PTC systems as of September 30, 2017.[77]Further, 26 railroads have begun field testing PTC systems on segments of track and that data submitted to the FRA shows that as of September 30, 2017, PTC systems are in operation on only 45 percent of the required miles of track owned by freight railroads and only 24 percent of the miles of track owned by passenger railroads.[78]The original deadline of December 2015 proposed by the RSIA for full implementation of PTC systems on America’s railways appears to have been overly optimistic. While there are certain areas of track that are in full compliance with the new deadline date of December 31, 2018, it appears that full implementation is still a work in progress. 

III. Positive TrainControl Implementation

A.             Explanation of Positive Train Control

In order to fully understand what is required of railroads subject to both the RSIA and the PTCEI, it is imperative to have a firm understanding of what Positive Train Control is. At its core, Positive Train Control is a technological system that is designed to automatically stop a train before accidents that are caused by human error occur.[79]These crashes are often caused by engineer or dispatcher error which cause the train to travel at excessive speeds, perform unauthorized movements, or cause the train to move through switches that have been left in the incorrect position.[80]Over the last forty-six years, the National Transportation Board estimates PTC technology could have prevented 145 railroad accidents, saved nearly 300 lives and prevented an estimated 7,000 injuries to passengers.[81]

To be in compliance with the acts mandated by Congress, railroads must install PTC systems specifically designed “to prevent train-to-train collisions; derailments caused by excessive speed; unauthorized incursions by trains onto sections of track where maintenance activities are taking place; and the movement of a train through a track switch left in the wrong position.”[82]A PTC system uses signals and sensors that have been installed along the track to communicate train location, speed restrictions, and moving authority.[83]PTC allows for that communication to be made in real time allowing the information passed between trains, rail wayside devices, and dispatch stations to pass between each other simultaneously.[84]If the PTC system detects that the locomotive is exceeding a speed restriction, train position, or moving authority, equipment on-board the locomotive will first alert the engineer, then if the engineer does not heed the warning, the system will then automatically slow or stop the train.[85]To function properly, the PTC system must be able to determine the precise location, direction, and speed of trains then effectively warn train operators of potential problems and, if necessary, immediately take action if the engineer fails to act following a warning from the PTC system.[86]While PTC will function to stop a train before certain accidents occur, PTC will not be effective to prevent vehicle-train accidents at highway grade railroad crossings or accidents that occur due to track and equipment failures.[87]

B.             Elements of A Positive Train Control System

To have a functioning Positive Train Control system, three main elements are required.[88]The three elements are an on-board system, a wayside system, and a back-office server.[89]An on-board system functions to monitor a train’s position and speed and automatically activates the train’s brakes as necessary to enforce speed restrictions and prevent unauthorized train movements.[90]Before beginning a haul, the locomotive’s on-board system downloads information on the route necessary to effect a safe trip such as posted speed limits and any known hazards.[91]The wayside system functions to monitor track signals, switches, and track circuits to communicate data needed to permit the on-board system to authorize the movement of the locomotive.[92]During the haul, the on-board system remains in contact with dispatchers and the wayside system which allows the on-board system and the dispatchers to know the speed of the train, its location, and whether the train’s speed needs to be reduced.[93]The final element is a back-office server which stores all the information related to the rail network and the trains operating on that network.[94]The server transmits this information to the individual on-board systems installed on each locomotive.[95]In order for the PTC system to function properly, all three elements must be integrated by a wireless data communications system that is capable of moving massive quantities of information, in real time, back and forth between the locomotive’s on-board system, the back-office servers, and the wayside equipment.[96]

C.             Compliance with the Act

Under the RSIA and PTCEI, it is estimated that PTC systems are required to be installed on approximately 60,000 miles of railroad track in the United States.[97]While Class I railroads have shown substantial progress in compliance with the Acts, some commuter railroads have shown considerably less progress.[98]It is estimated that as of December 31, 2015, just 14 percent of the more than 60,000 route miles, 31 percent of the 22,066 locomotives had the necessary equipment installed, and just 27 percent of the nearly 115,000 employees were sufficiently trained to used PTC equipment on the lines required under the federal government’s original mandate.[99]

1.              Burlington Northern Santa Fe

Leading the way in PTC implementation, Burlington Northern Santa Fe has completed installation of all mandated PTC infrastructure on its network well before the deadline date.[100]The first Class I railroad to complete their implementation plan and achieve full implementation status on all of their eighty-eight required subdivisions covering more than 11,500 miles and nearly 80 percent of their freight volume,BNSF has already operated 1.7 million trains with PTC protections on its mandated lines.[101]As BNSF continues to test and refine its system, BNSF estimates that its total investment in PTC will be approximately $2 billion.[102]As of September 30, 2018, BNSF has trained over 21,000 BNSF employees to operate and maintain PTC trains and equipment, retrofitted 5,000 locomotives with PTC technology, installed over 11,500 route miles of PTC infrastructure, and installed over 6,000 radio towers amounting to 100% implementation on BNSF lines.[103]While BNSF has achieved full implementation on its lines, BNSF submitted a request to the DOT for a two year extension of the PTC deadline.[104]This extension was applied for because, in accordance with the FRA’s interpretation of the mandate, full implementation status cannot be achieved until all non-BNSF trains and/or equipment operating on PTC equipped lines are also PTC-compliant.[105]This issue of interoperability will be discussed further herein.

2.              Union Pacific

Full implementation of PTC on Union Pacific’s track requires a large investment byUnion Pacific in its rail network. To fully implement PTC on its nearly 17,000 route miles of track that PTC is required to be installed on, Union Pacific estimates it will invest nearly $2.9 billion in the United States rail network to make its PTC system operational, the most of any Class I carrier.[106]That figure includes the cost of equipping 5,515 locomotives with on-board computers, more than 10,000 wayside antennas installed along the tracks, and 5,115 locomotive radios for use by the train engineer and conductor.[107]Union Pacific’s PTC system will account for nearly one third of the railroad industry’s radios, locomotives, and route miles that are required to implement PTC.[108]In the first business quarter of 2018, Union Pacific was able to prepare an additional eight track segments for PTC operations which brought Union Pacific to nearly 97 percent total implementation status.[109]These track segments are fully equipped with signals, switches and radios and have GPS coordinates, which allow for identification of precise locations to be relayed back to the back-office server for system wide PTC coordination.[110]In addition to preparing more track segments for PTC, Union Pacific educated more than 3,300 additional employees on PTC operations, bringing its total number of employees trained to use PTC technology to 22,690 which is 88 percent of Union Pacific employees required to receive training.[111]Moreover, Union Pacific installed 900 additional PTC route miles bringing its total route miles with PTC installed infrastructure to 10,899, equaling 64 percent of its total route miles required to be installed.[112]While Union Pacific still has more route miles to install PTC infrastructure, more employees to train, and equipment to install, Union Pacific anticipates meeting the deadline for installing PTC on its rail network.[113]While the Union Pacific anticipates meeting the deadline for installation of PTC on 100 percent of its lines, Union Pacific will have 75% implemented on its lines causing the Union Pacific to file an extension with the FRA for full implementation status by December 2020.[114]

3.              New Jersey Transit

Among the commuter railroads that are well below the level of implementation achieved by Class I and other commuter railroads is the New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit). [115]The NJ Transit appears to be short of compliance. As of June 30, 2018, NJ Transit had achieved merely 34 percent of the total hardware required to be installed on its line.[116]The 34 percent figure includes only 370 of 1,410 locomotives installed with the necessary technology and 218 of 345 required wayside hardware.[117]While further behind in hardware installed, NJ Transit has successfully trained nearly all of its employees required to be qualified in PTC technology.[118]

In order to accommodate installation of PTC technology and hardware on locomotives and cab control cars, New Jersey Transit was forced to temporarily discontinue some trains and modify departure times and origin/destination points.[119]Although forced to put customers at a temporary inconvenience, NJ Transit reports they have made substantial progress on PTC, pushing past only 12 percent completion to nearly 66 percent by September 20, 2018.[120]New Jersey Transit officials said “… failure to meet the federal requirements by December 31, [2018] is not an option.”[121]While NJ Transit is considerably behind Class I railroads in its pursuit of full implementation status, they are taking the necessary steps to comply with the deadline date.

IV. Problems Experienced by Railroad Companies With Implementation

In the wake of theRSIA requiring PTC systems to be installed on railroad lines by December 31, 2015, rail industry executives and lobbyists warned Congress that the 2015 deadline was unrealistic as PTC systems had to essentially be developed from the ground up.[122]Included in problems that railroad companies have experienced with implementation of PTC systems are the high costs associated with installing PTC technology on-board locomotives, wayside system infrastructure, and the requirement of interoperability of PTC systems across varying platforms. As a result of these various issues, the deadline date to have PTC installed was pushed back to December 31, 2018.

A.             High Cost of Implementation

The estimated amount of money the freight industry will spend on PTC development and installation collectively is expected to reach more than $10 billion by the time PTC is fully operational across America.[123]This estimated cost does not include the costs of improvements, maintenance, and repair to keep the PTC systems operational in the future.[124]Union Pacific, with the largest PTC footprint in North America,[125]estimates its total cost of implementation of PTC systems across their nearly 17,000 route miles will cost the company $2.9 billion.[126]Burlington Northern Santa Fe estimates it will invest nearly $2 billion to install its nearly 11,500 route miles of PTC infrastructure.[127]Since Class I railroads have more route miles and locomotives to install PTC technology on, their cost to implement PTC is certainly higher than the costs short line and commuter railroads face. Although the amount of money invested by individual commuter rail companies may appear to be minor than large Class I railroads, the high cost of implementation is still a monumental concern.[128]

In addition to the high cost of implementing PTC infrastructure along track routes, PTC technology installed on locomotives is also costly.[129]The wiring needed to allow the on-board locomotive system to function has been estimated to cost as high as $500,000 per locomotive.[130]For short line and regional railroads who on average operate locomotives that are nearly twenty-five years old, the equipment costs per locomotive could range from $70,000 to $100,000 or even reach as high as $150,000 depending on the model and age of the locomotive.[131]While these numbers could be inconsequential to large Class I railroad companies, for a short line railroad, this high cost of locomotive technology needed to be installed may result in the short line railroad not being able to serve Class I carriers or going out of business.[132]No matter the size of the railroad, the high costs associated with implementing PTC technology is an uphill battle that railroad companies are required to climb.

B.             Interoperability of PTC Systems Across Varying Platforms

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of PTC technology for railroad companies has been creating a system that is completely interoperable between various platforms.[133]Interoperability is a key component to nationwide implementation of PTC. The FRA defined interoperability as “the ability of PTC equipped train to communicate and respond to the PTC railroad’s system, including uninterrupted movements over property boundaries.”[134]Essentially, interoperability between various platforms means that PTC must work for any train on any track although different railroads may use different PTC systems.[135]The RSIA requires railroad companies, including commuter services operating over a freight railroad’s track, must include in its PTC Implementation Plan how its PTC system provides for how its PTC system will interoperate between the host and all tenant railroads operating on the track.[136]

Meticulous testing of the system is essential to meet the requirements of the new PTC mandate and to make the system effective and safe.[137]With nearly 400,000 components in a single PTC system, making sure that all PTC components are interoperable is a large task.[138]In order for a system to be interoperable, the back-office system must share large amounts of information including precise locations of locomotives, switches, and wayside signals.[139]Since switch and signal locations change constantly, sometimes sixty or more times a week, engineers must visually check these signals every week and relay the information back to the database in order to make the PTC system interoperable.[140]

All Class I railroads must achieve interoperability with all railroads operating across any of their PTC-equipped lines.[141]For example, in order to be interoperable, the railroad operating across a BNSF PTC-equipped line must be able to operate using BNSF’s PTC system. The interoperability requirement has caused BNSF to file a deadline extension to ensure it can assist the approximately 30 railroads with interoperability assistance ranging from technical, operation, and regulatory advice to back-office hosting and crew training.[142]The requirement that PTC systems be interoperable with each other is an issue that has caused the implementation and functionality of PTC systems to be further delayed.

V. Assistance From The United States Department of Labor

A.             Financial Assistance For Railroad Companies to Assist with Implementation

With the high costs associated with implementing PTC technology on railroad lines, the United States DOT, through the FRA, initially provided two resources to help railroad companies offset their cost of investment in PTC systems.[143]The Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing Program (RRIF Program)and the Railroad Safety Technology Grant mandated by RSIA both allow the FRA to dedicate money to further the interest of installing PTC systems on America’s railroad lines.[144]

Under the RRIF Program, the FRA is allowed to provide direct loans and loan guarantees to railroads, State and local governments, government-sponsored authorities and corporations, joint ventures that include at least one railroad, and limited-option shippers that intend to construct a new rail connection up to$35 billion.[145]Of the money the FRA is allowed to loan to railroad companies, $7 billion is reserved for projects benefitting freight railroads that are not a Class I operation.[146] 

Under the RSIA, the FRA is required “to establish a grant program for the deployment of… new or novel railroad safety technology,” which the FRA has designated as the Railroad Safety Technology Grant Program.[147]As of March 17, 2011, the FRA had provided nine grants to railroad companies totaling about $50 million.[148]

As the December 31, 2018 deadline approaches, the FRA has continued to give railroad companies financial support as they strive to reach full implementation status.[149]The assistance provided by the FRA has included the RRIF Program and the Railroad Safety Technology Grant Program, as well as other grant programs.[150]In fiscal year 2016, the FRA provided $25 million in Railroad Safety TechnologyGrant Program funding, $400 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, $925 million in grants to support railroads’ development and implementation of PTC systems, and $197 million in funding administered by theFederal Transit Administration under the FAST Act.

The FAST Act, which stands for “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act,” authorizes the Commuter Rail Positive Train Control Grant Program to offer funding to states, local governments, and transit agencies that operate commuter rail systems to install PTC systems as required by RSIA.[151]In May 2017, the DOT made $197 million available for the costs of installing PTC systems including back-office systems, wayside systems, on-board locomotive systems, software, equipment installation, and spectrum acquisition on commuter rail lines.[152]Through the FAST Act, the federal share of eligible capital costs 80 percent of the net capital cost with the grant recipient supplying the remaining 20percent, unless the grant recipient requests a lower percentage.[153]

The FRA has even gone beyond solely working with railroad companies to implement PTC by working directly with the Federal Communications Commission and theAdvisory Council on Historic Preservation to resolve issues related to spectrum use and improve the approval process for PTC communication towers.[154]

In September, 2018 the FRA announced another Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO)for funding for at least $46 million for PTC system grants.[155]This NOFO is to solicit applications for the remainder of the $250 million PTC Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program that remained after selections for the program were named in August, 2018.[156]The purpose of this NOFO is to solicit applications for PTC projects such as back-office systems, wayside systems, on-board locomotive technology, software, equipment installation, testing and training for the implementation of PTC systems, and interoperability related to intercity passenger rail transportation, freight rail transportation and/ or commuter rail passenger transportation.[157]When speaking about the additional solicitation for grant funding, FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said “the expedited solicitation will provide commuter and intercity railroads an additional opportunity to request grant funds for positive train control… by reissuing these funds, the FRA is showing our continued commitment to work with railroads and supplies in fully implementing PTC.”

B.            Technical Assistance Provided by the FRA

In addition to funding options, the FRA has also provided technical assistance to railroads that are seeking explanation or help to implement their plans.[158]The FRA has dedicated staff to assist railroads via conference calls, working meetings, e-mail exchanges, and other written correspondence to assist railroad companies with PTC technology.[159]Not only is the FRA helping in an office setting, but it is providing both laboratory and field PTC system development and testing.[160]

While the deadline for railroad companies to have PTC systems installed and ready for testing on their lines fast approaching, the FRA continues to provide opportunity for funding to assist companies reach their implementation goal. In addition to funding options, the FRA has designated staff members to assist railroad companies in issues they have encountered while installing or testing their PTC systems.

VI. Call For Action

Positive Train Control provides railroad companies the ability to remotely stop trains to avoid catastrophes. Although hesitant at first, railroad companies seem to have embraced the new technology and have taken numerous steps to achieve full implementation of Positive Train Control systems on their rail lines by the updated deadline date of December 31, 2018. Despite the high costs associated with installing PTC technology along tracks and on-board locomotives, and the requirement that PTC systems be interoperable among varying platforms, railroad companies have used their best efforts to comply with the Rail Safety Improvement Act.

Through the use of various grant and loan programs, as well as providing staff members to assist companies accomplish their implementation plan, the FRA continues to assist railroad companies in working toward compliance. While substantial, the funds made available by the FRA fall well short of the staggering price tag of $10billion invested by railroad companies to ensure PTC is fully implemented and properly functioning across America. With rail companies exhausting all efforts to comply, including partially shutting down their operations, the question remains: what more can the FRA do to accelerate the implementation of PTC across America.

A viable option could be for the FRA to afford railroad companies with more financing options including grants and long-term loans or possibly tax credit incentives to assist companies in their pursuit of implementation. The FRA could also consider extending the mandatory deadline date, allowing companies to implement PTC without facing civil penalties. Or, perhaps adherence to a strict deadline date, the issuance of civil penalties for non-compliance, and providing the same monetary and technical support will be enough for the FRA to encourage companies to continue their efforts to comply.

With the deadline date of December 31, 2018 fast approaching, and numerous companies still working towards implementation, the FRA must consider the options available to it. Adjusting the date companies must be in full compliance with the RSIA is a viable option, but so is adherence to the deadline date, enforced by civil penalties. When deciding the proper method to handle companies not meeting theDecember 2018 deadline, the FRA must continue to provide funding and resources to assist companies in their pursuit of implementation. One thing is sure, the ability to save the lives of workers and passengers on our railroads by ensuring Positive Train Control is functional is enough of an incentive for railroad companies and the FRA to continue to work together towards the common goal of full implementation.

[1] Early American Railroads,, (last visited Oct. 17, 2018). 

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See generally Id.

[7] See generally Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Interstate Commerce Act, Pub. L. 49-104, 24 Stat. 379 (1887); The Interstate Commerce Act Is Passed, United States Senate, (last visited Nov. 5, 2018).

[10] Wabash v. Illinois, 118 U.S. 557 (1886).

[11] Id.

[12]  United States Senate, supra note 9; U.S. Const. art I § 9, cl. 2.

[13] United States Senate, supra note 9.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Safety Appliance Act, 27 Stat 531 (1893) (codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. §20302 (1994)).

[17] Railroad Safety Appliance Standards, Miscellaneous Revisions, Federal Register (2010),

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Rail Deregulation in the United States, The Geography of Transport Systems (2018), (last visited Oct. 18, 2018).

[22] Id.

[23] Clifford Winston, The Success of the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, Brookings, October 15, 2005,

[24] See generally Id.

[25] Overview of America’s Freight Railroads, Association of American Railroads, (last updated April 2018).

[26] Class I Railroads | 140,000-Mile Private Rail Network Delivers for America’s Economy, Freight Rail Works, (last visited Oct. 20, 2018).

[27] Association of American Railroads, supra note 25.

[28] Freight Rail Works, supra note 26.

[29] Association of American Railroads, supra note 25.

[30] Freight Rail Works, supra note 26.

[31] Id.

[32]Id.; Freight Rail Service, Genesee & Wyoming Inc., (last visited Oct. 20, 2018).

[33] Rail Services, Watco Companies, (last visited Oct. 20, 2018).

[34] Id.

[35] Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, Pub. L. 104-88, 109 Stat. 803 (1995) (codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. § 10501 (2015)).

[36] Overview of the STB,Surface Transportation Board, (last visited Oct. 21, 2018).

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Department of Transportation Act, Pub L. No. 89-670, §9, 80 Stat. 931 (1966) (codified at 49 U.S.C. § 103 (2011)).

[40] 49 U.S.C. § 103 (2011).

[41] About FRA, Federal Railroad Administration, (last visited Oct. 22, 2018).

[42] See generally Id.

[43] Federal Railroad Safety Act, Pub L. No. 91-458, 84 Stat. 971 (1970) (codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. § 20101 (2011)).

[44] Charles W. McDonald, The Federal Railroad Safety Program: 100 Years of Safer Railroads (1993).

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Rail Safety Improvement Act, Pub. L. 110-432, 122 Stat. 4848 (2008) (codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. § 20157 (2015)).

[49] Jo Strang, FRA’s Role in Carrying Out the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), US Department of Transportation, March 17, 2017,’s-role-carrying-out-rail-safety-improvement-act-2008-rsia.

[50] Positive Train Control, Federal Railroad Administration, (last visited Oct. 29, 2018).

[51] Strang, supra note 49.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Id.

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Joel Rubin, Ann M. Simmons & Mitchell Landsberg, Total Destruction: At least 17 die in head-on Metrolink crash, Los Angeles Times, Sept.13, 2008,

[59] Miriam Velasquez, Chatsworth Metrolink crash was 9 years ago Tuesday, DailyNews, Sept. 12, 2017,

[60] Josh Cain, What has changed since the Metrolink crash in Chatsworth 10 years ago, DailyNews, Sept. 12, 2018,

[61] Id.

[62] Id.

[63] Velasquez, supra note 59.

[64] Id.

[65] Bart Jansen, Washington Amtrak derailment: 30 mph speed limit sign posted 2 miles before crash site, USA Today, Jan. 5, 2018,

[66] Id.

[67] Id.

[68] Rueters, Washington state Amtrak derailment topped $40M, NTSB says, NBC News, Jan. 4, 2018,

[69] Jansen, supra note 65.

[70] Rueters, supra note 68.

[71] Id.

[72] Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act, Pub L. No. 114-73, 129 Stat. 576, 582 (2015) (codified as amended at 49 U.S.C. § 20157 (2015)).

[73] Background: Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015, US Department of Transportation, (last updated Jan. 2, 2018).

[74] Federal Railroad Administration, supra note 50.

[75] Id.

[76] Id.

[77] Id.

[78] Id.

[79] Positive Train Control (PTC), Association of American Railroads, (last updated April 2018).

[80] Positive Train Control (PTC), Federal Communications Commission, (last updated March 2017).

[81] Thomas Barrabi, U.S. Rail System Has A Dirty Little Secret, Fox News Network, January 22, 2016,

[82] Association of American Railroads, supra note 79.

[83] Positive Train Control (PTC): Overview and Policy Issues,, (last updated Sept. 2018).

[84] Federal Communications Commission, supra note 80.

[85], supra note 83.

[86] Association of American Railroads, supra note 79.

[87] Positive Train Control, UP: Positive Train Control, (last visited Nov. 3, 2018).

[88] Association of American Railroads, supra note 79.

[89] Id.

[90] Id.

[91] Hilary Brueck, How ‘Positive Train Control’ Works & How It Could Make Rail Travel Safer, Forbes, May 20, 2018,

[92] Association of American Railroads, supra note 79.

[93] Brueck, supra note 91.

[94] Association of American Railroads, supra note 79.

[95] Id..

[96] Id.

[97], supra note 83.

[98] Id.

[99] Barrabi, supra note 81.

[100] Leading the Way in PTC, BNSF Railway, (last visited Oct. 31, 2018).

[101] Id.

[102] Id.

[103] Id.

[104] Id.

[105] Id.

[106] UP: Positive Train Control, supra note 87.

[107] Id.

[108] Id.

[109] Union Pacific Reports Positive Train Control Progress, UP: Union Pacific, April 26, 2018, 

[110] Id

[111] Id.

[112] Id.

[113] Id.

[114] Union Pacific: Positive Train Control, (last visited Nov. 5, 2018).

[115] PTC Progress, Federal Railroad Administration, (last updated June 30, 2018).

[116] Id.

[117] Id.

[118] Id.

[119] NJT-18-067, New Jersey Transit, Sept. 20, 2018,

[120] Id.

[121] Id.

[122] Barrabi, supra note 81.

[123] Positive Train Control, Association of American Railroads, Sept. 11, 2018,

[124] Id.

[125] UP: Union Pacific, supra note 109.

[126] UP: Positive Train Control, supra note 106.

[127] BNSF Railway, supra note 100.

[128] Barrabi, supra note 81.

[129] Shefali Kapadia, As PTC deadline nears, are Class I railroads ready?, Supply Chain Dive, May 29, 2018,

[130] Id.

[131] Jeff Stagl, Positive train control a tall order for short line railroads, Progressive Railroading, Dec. 2012,–33577.

[132] Id.

[133] Complexities and Challenges of Positive Train Control, Association of American Railroads, (last visited Nov. 5, 2018).

[134] Hwi Harold Lee & Ieuan Mahony, Positive Train Control: Roadblocks to Interoperability, Lexology, Oct. 17, 2017,

[135] Association of American Railroads, supra note 133. 

[136] Lee and Mahony, supra note 134.

[137] Association of American Railroads, supra note 133.

[138] Id.

[139] Id.

[140] Id.

[141] BNSF Railway, supra note 100.

[142] Id.

[143] Strang, supra note 49.

[144] Id.

[145] Id.

[146] Id.

[147] Id.

[148] Id.

[149] Federal Railroad Administration, supra note 49.

[150] Id.

[151] Commuter Rail Positive Train Control Grants, Federal Transit Administration, (last visited Nov. 5, 2018).

[152] Id.

[153] Id.

[154] Federal Railroad Administration, supra note 50.

[155] FRA Announces $46.3 Million in PTC Grant Funding, Federal Railroad Administration, Sept. 12, 2018,

[156] Id.

[157] Id.

[158] Strang, supra note 49.

[159] Id.

[160] Id.