SEPTA races to comply with federal law that other transit authorities ignore

SEPTA is on pace to meet a federal mandate to implement a safety system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) by the end of this year.  If it does, it will beat out many of the 41 other freight and commuter railroads affected by the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

But SEPTA might be winning a race that no one else is running.

From PlanPhilly’s review of most of the 41 transportation authorities and freight rail operators that share tracks with commuter rails, there appear to be only three train authorities – Amtrak, SEPTA and Southern California’s Metrolink – currently on pace to meet the December 31, 2015 deadline. A deadly Metrolink crash in 2008 spurred Congress into passing the RSIA.  

PlanPhilly attempted to contact every agency and freight operator impacted by the RSIA for this story, but very few of them responded to repeated requests for comment. Media reports have largely noted the difficulty most agencies are having in meeting the deadline. But, more notably, quite a few aren’t even attempting to comply with the law, hoping that Congress will push back the deadline.

NJ Transit expects to complete implementation sometime in 2016. Chicago’s METRA has no expectation of complying with the law’s deadline; officials there have called the law “the biggest unfunded mandate” they have seen. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority doesn’t expect to have PTC ready until 2018. Last week, an MTA Metro-North train collided with an SUV on the tracks in Valhalla, NY, killing six.

PTC would not have made a difference in that crash – it doesn’t detect cars or other objects on the tracks at grade crossings. But PTC would have prevented the MTA Metro-North derailment in December 2013 that resulted in four fatalities. There, a speeding train derailed near the Bronx – PTC would have automatically regulated the train’s speed.

Under old signal systems, train engineers would look for stop/go/slow signals not unlike traffic lights. A distracted engineer could miss those and place the train into trouble. PTC helps prevent train operator errors by automatically slowing or stopping the train down in certain situations, using GPS and radio to pinpoint the location and speed of each train.

“[The old systems] couldn’t tell if a train would be able to stop in time … because you couldn’t pinpoint the train,” said SEPTA’s Assistant General Manager, Jeff Knueppel. PTC will allow SEPTA to pinpoint its trains and automatically stop trains that are going too fast around a corner – which can cause derailments – or approaching a stopped or slowed train ahead of it too quickly.

PTC essentially helps trains communicate with one another, but miscommunications and other human errors only account for about 35 percent of train crashes, which are exceedingly rare to begin with. For example, PTC wouldn’t have prevented the 11-car CSX freight train derailment in South Philly in January, or the other one from derailing over the Schuylkill River in 2013. Both of those were caused by defects with the tracks themselves.  

SEPTA SPRINTS TOWARDS A PHOTO FINISH

While SEPTA still expects to make the deadline, that’s far from guaranteed. Knueppel admitted that SEPTA anticipates a close race with time as the December deadline approaches.

PATH executives thought they were going to be the first agency to implement PTC, but the Wall Street Journal subsequently reported that there was no chance of that happening, noting that some believed 2018 was more realistic.

SEPTA is one of the few agencies seriously attempting to meet Congress’s December 31, 2015 deadline. Many agencies have held out hope that Congress will amend the law to extend the deadline – the Senate held hearings last month precisely on that, and both the Association of American Railroads and the American Public Transportation Authority have endorsed extending the deadline.

Additionally, the law didn’t provide for any penalty for non-compliance and the Federal Railroad Administration hasn’t said what will happen to non-complying agencies, which means some agencies might defy it, assuming federal regulators won’t penalize them. Economic penalties would only make it harder for those agencies to implement the system – many agencies cite funding issues as a reason for their delays.

SEPTA’s relative success can be chalked up to a mix of smart planning and dumb luck. “There are some very significant problems that other agencies have to overcome that we were fortunately better positioned to deal with,” said Knueppel.  When the mandate came down from Congress, SEPTA was already working on creating its Command Center and upgrading its signal system to what is called an Automatic Train Control system, a system that has most, but not all, of the PTC safety features.

SEPTA decided, along with Amtrak, to overlay a radio system called “ACSES II” on about 220 track miles to provide the pinpointing required by PTC. SEPTA and Amtrak have installed transponders picking up where the train is, and providing train speed information to the system. “You’re pinpointing the train using computers,” noted Knueppel. “So, you can make the train do certain things,” like slow it down when there might be trouble ahead, making it possible for the conductor to stop the train in time to avoid colliding with an unexpectedly stopped train. 

Even with all that going for it, SEPTA wouldn’t be in this position without the passage of Act 89 in 2013, which has doubled the authority’s capital budget.  

Other agencies haven’t been as lucky. Freight carriers have largely opted for a system different from Amtrak’s, and many commuter rail authorities elsewhere lease tracks from the freight lines. SEPTA does as well, but not for long.

SEPTA currently rents 6 miles of track with CSX right now, but the authority is moving fast to put down a second and third track along that CSX line, in order to separate from CSX completely. According to Knueppel, the project is two-thirds of the way done.

Whereas SEPTA and Amtrak were able to get radio spectrum space for the system from the Federal Communications Commission early on, other authorities had trouble. The federal rail law’s mandate seemed to conflict directly with some FCC environmental regulations. It wasn’t until last year that the FCC passed some guidance on how railroads could navigate the regulatory conflict.

Congress only mandated PTC on freight and intercity commuter rail, meaning subways, trolleys and light rail lines aren’t required to make the upgrade. The PATCO Highspeed Line, for example, isn’t affected. It uses a cab signal and speed controls system called Automatic Train Operation. 

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