Positive Train Control (PTC) Overview and Update

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated Positive Train Control (PTC) be implemented across a significant portion of the Nation's rail industry by December 31, 2015 .  This deadline has since been extended to December 31, 2018.  Lines requiring PTC are essentially Class I railroad main lines (i.e., over which 5 million or more gross tons are transported annually) that handle any poisonous-inhalation-hazardous (PIH) materials; and, any railroad main lines over which regularly scheduled intercity passenger or commuter rail services are provided.  Nationwide, PTC is expected to be implemented over a total of approximately 70,000 miles of track.

PTC refers to communication-based/processor-based train control technology that provides a system capable of reliably and functionally preventing train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and the movement of a train through a main line switch in the improper position.

PTC systems are required, as applicable, to perform other additional specified functions.  PTC systems vary widely in complexity and sophistication based on the level of automation and functionality they implement, the system architecture used, the wayside system upon which they are based (e.g., non-signaled, block signal, cab signal, etc.), and the degree of train control they are capable of assuming.

A Diagram of how PTC functions

A Diagram of how PTC functions

The primary concept in PTC (as defined for North American Class I freight railroads) is that the train receives information about its location and where it is allowed to safely travel, also known as movement authorities.  Equipment on board the train then enforces this, preventing unsafe movement.  PTC systems may work in either dark territory or signaled territory, and may use GPS navigation to track train movements.  The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has listed among its goals, "To deploy the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS) as a nationwide, uniform, and continuous positioning system, suitable for train control."
On April 4, 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced that it was accepting applications for $25 million in competitive grant funding available to railroads, suppliers, and state and local governments for Positive Train Control (PTC) implementation.  The funding is part of the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that funds the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

“Positive train control is a long overdue technology that prevents accidents and saves lives,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  These funds will help us get closer to implementing PTC, and I encourage applications that can make these limited dollars go as far as possible.”
Applications will be accepted until May 19, 2016, and FRA will give preference to projects that would provide the greatest level of public safety benefits.  As part of the President’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal, FRA requested $1.25 billion to assist commuter and short line railroads with implementing PTC.

Current Status of Rail Organizations PTC Compliance by Year


PTC prevents certain train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and trains going to the wrong tracks because a switch was left in the wrong position.  In 2008, Congress mandated PTC implementation on certain railroad main lines where railroads transport poisonous-by-inhalation hazardous (PIH) or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous (TIH) materials, or any line where a railroad provides regularly scheduled passenger service.  Last October, Congress extended the original deadline from December 31, 2015 to at least December 31, 2018. 

 “Any Congressional funding and investment to make Positive Train Control active on our nation’s railroad network is a worthwhile investment,” said FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg. “But it will take even more significant funding to achieve this important, life-saving goal.  We look forward to working with Congress to find these resources and encourage railroads to submit strong applications.”

Various other benefits are sometimes associated with PTC such as increased fuel efficiency or locomotive diagnostics; these are benefits that can be achieved by having a wireless data system to transmit the information, whether it be for PTC or other applications.

Since 2008, FRA has provided significant assistance to support railroads’ PTC implementation.  Those efforts include:

  • Providing more than $650 million in grant funds to passenger railroads, including nearly $400 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funding;
  • Issuing a nearly $1 billion loan to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to implement PTC on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad;
  • Building a PTC testbed at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado;
  • Working directly with the Federal Communications Commission and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to resolve issues related to spectrum use and improve the approval process for PTC communication towers; and
  • Dedicating staff to work on PTC implementation, including establishing a PTC task force.


Installation of a PTC system requires an extraordinary effort (estimates), including: 

  • A complete physical survey and highly precise geo-mapping of the 60,000 miles of railroad right-of-way on which PTC technology will be installed, including geo-mapping of nearly 474,000 field assets (mileposts, curves, grade crossings, switches, and signals).
  • Installing PTC technology on approximately 22,000 locomotives and approximately 36,000 wayside interface units.
  • Installing PTC on nearly 4,800 switches in non-signaled territory and completing more than 12,300 signal replacement projects at locations where the existing signal equipment cannot accommodate PTC.
  • Developing, producing, and deploying a new radio system and new radios specifically designed for the massive data transmission requirements of PTC at 4,200 base stations, 33,700 trackside locations, and on approximately 22,000 locomotives.
  • Developing back office systems and upgrading dispatching software to incorporate the data and precision required for PTC.
  • Installing more than 20,000 new antenna structures nationwide to transmit PTC signals.


It was recently announced that the FRA gave Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) written authorization to start provisional revenue service operations for its PTC system.  SEPTA launched PTC on April 18; and is the first commuter line in the U.S. to Run ACSES (Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System), which is a PTC-compliant system.  
In December, 2015, travelers taking Amtrak between New York City and Philadelphia were officially protected by a new crash-prevention system, PTC.

Amtrak activated its version of positive train control between the two cities, the last stretch of its tracks on the busy Northeast Corridor to get the system.  As a result, Amtrak is meeting a federal year-end deadline that Congress recently extended to December 2018, amid protests by many freight and commuter railroads.


While the deadline for Positive Train Control (PTC) implementation imposed by the Federal Government has been extended, there is much work to do in a relatively short time frame. At JFC & Associates, our organization is prepared to help facilitate your organizations goals of gathering real time asset information. Beyond PTC, having both the vision and control over your assets is critical to your success. Version configuration and failure / trend analysis reporting is a critical element of a successful PTC implementation and long term reliability and asset sustainability. Please contact us today for more information.

John GouldComment