By Robert Wightman, Vice President, Transport Action Ontario
There has been a lot of talk on Positive Train Control, PTC, lately, especially with the New Jersey Transit, NJT, incident in Hoboken recently. Exactly what is PTC, why did it come in to being and what will it do?
From Wikipedia Positive train control (PTC) is a system of functional requirements for monitoring and controlling train movements as an attempt to provide increased safety. The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) describes Positive Train Control as having these primary characteristics:
The USA is on a major initiative to install PTC by about 2020 on Class I lines carrying hazardous material or passengers. This is a result of a collision between a Metrolink Commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train on September 12, 2008, in California, which resulted in the deaths of 25 and injuries to more than 135 passengers. The operator of the commuter train was allegedly texting on his cell phone at the time and ran a red signal. The US Congress passed a 315 page bill that President Bush signed into law on October 16, 2008.
PTC would have prevented the Metro North Derailment where the commuter train entered the curve at three times the stated speed on December 1, 2013 killing 4 and injuring more than 70. It would also have prevented the Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia in May of 2015 that killed 8 and injured over 200.
There are many incidents that PTC would NOT have prevented. In the US these include:
In the Canadian context, PTC would have prevented the VIA train derailment at Burlington on February 26, 2012 when a Via train entered a 15 mph crossover at 56 mph killing the 3 crew in the locomotive and injuring 46 people. It would not have prevented the Lac Megantic disaster where an unattended train ran away backwards down a grade after being left without enough hand brakes applied nor would it have prevented the CP Derailment in the winter of 2015 near Nipigon ON that was caused by broken rail inside an insulated joint which was partially caused by extreme cold.
Positive Train Control may look like a major safety advance, and it is, but at price tag of over $2 billion Canadian it makes one wonder if it is the best bang for the buck. There are more people killed each year in level crossing collisions between trains and autos than in PTC preventable railway accidents. Would it not be more prudent to increase level crossing grade separations before PTC? Major train accidents may be more spectacular but more people are killed in level crossing accidents each year that in train accidents.
1 American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA), Lanham, MD (2009). “Meeting the Communication Challenges for Positive Train Control.” AREMA 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, IL.
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