Most Railroads Optimistic on Meeting End-2020 PTC Deadline
Friday, May 01, 2020 | Comments

Railroads are generally optimistic about finishing required work to implement positive train control (PTC) technology by the end of 2020, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. Most railroads were in the final testing and implementation stages of PTC at the end of 2019; however, several face tight schedules for the rest of the work, making problems with software and vendors more acute.

Positive Train Control (PTC) is a communications-based system designed to automatically slow or stop a train that is not being operated safely. By the end of 2019, more than three-quarters of the 42 railroads required to implement PTC were conducting advanced testing or had implemented PTC on their own track segments but had work left to reach full implementation.

Full implementation means a railroad has implemented a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)-certified PTC system on all its own required territories and achieved interoperability with any railroads that operate on its tracks.

Just under half of the 42 railroads reported making progress between March 31 and Dec. 31, 2019, but no additional railroads reached full implementation. However, railroads generally reported progress on achieving interoperability, which is a critical step for U.S. railroads to share tracks. From March 31 to Dec. 31, 2019, six additional railroads reported achieving interoperability with at least one other railroad, resulting in 17 of the 31 railroads that must achieve interoperability having done so.

The four railroads that have reached full PTC implementation did so by the Dec. 31, 2018, deadline.

While some railroads reported making progress on specific challenges GAO has previously identified, longstanding software and vendor issues have grown more acute as many railroads face compressed schedules to implement PTC by the end of 2020. For example, five selected railroads have had to compress their schedules because of software issues or other unique circumstances. The compressed schedules and recurring challenges, as well as unexpected events such as the COVID-19 global pandemic, create risks that could affect some railroads' ability to meet the extended deadline.

FRA, vendors and railroads have taken several steps to mitigate such risks. For example, FRA has worked with railroads to identify solutions to technical problems and has targeted its resources to regions it identified as needing additional implementation assistance. Additionally, FRA officials told us they are closely monitoring the effects of the COVID-19 global pandemic, such as the availability of supplies, staff and vendors. In light of these efforts, FRA, vendors and railroads were generally optimistic that they will overcome challenges to achieve full PTC implementation by Dec. 31, though four railroads reported considering contingency plans if they, or their tenants, cannot meet the extended deadline.

Nonetheless, completing implementation requirements by the end of 2020 will be but a first step for full PTC operations, as railroads and others said that some additional PTC work will likely continue beyond the end of 2020.

Railroads were originally required to implement PTC by the end of 2018, but almost all received extensions up to Dec. 31, 2020, by meeting specific statutory requirements. GAO was asked to review railroads' PTC implementation progress.

GAO analyzed all railroads' most recent quarterly reports submitted to FRA, which reflected progress as of end-2019. GAO also interviewed officials from 12 railroads, selected in part to include the eight railroads FRA identified in February 2020 as "at-risk" of not completing PTC implementation by the extended deadline. In addition, GAO interviewed officials from FRA, commuter and freight railroad industry associations, and three vendors that provide PTC products or services.

The full report is here.

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