GAO: Substantial Work Remains for Railroads to Implement Positive Train Control

As of June 30, passenger railroads (28 commuter railroads and Amtrak) generally remained in the early stages of positive train control (PTC) implementation—including equipment installation and early field testing. However, many passenger railroads are nearing completion of the equipment installation stage, the Government Accountability Office found.

For example, two-thirds of passenger railroads reported being more than 90 percent complete with equipment installation. With regard to testing, Amtrak has reported that it has initiated both field testing and revenue service demonstration (RSD), an advanced form of field testing that is required to fully implement PTC. However, most commuter railroads reported slower progress with testing.

Of the 28 commuter railroads required to implement PTC, which stops a train before certain accidents occur, 19 reported initiating field testing, but only eight reported initiating RSD, GAO said. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently clarified the criteria railroads must meet to qualify for a 2-year extension past the Dec. 31, 2018, PTC implementation deadline. To receive an extension, railroads must meet six statutory criteria. For the sixth criterion, commuter railroads are authorized to either initiate RSD on at least one track segment or use FRA-approved substitute criteria. FRA clarified these and other requirements at three PTC symposiums hosted for railroads in summer 2018. For example, FRA officials said that initiating field testing instead of RSD was one approach that commuter railroads could potentially take to receive FRA’s approval of substitute criteria. FRA’s actions are consistent with GAO’s March 2018 recommendation that the agency communicate to railroads the requirements and process for an extension.

Challenges related to PTC implementation and FRA’s resources raise questions as to the extent FRA and the passenger railroad industry are poised for full PTC implementation by Dec. 31, 2020, GAO said. Most passenger railroads anticipate needing an extension, leaving substantial work for both railroads and FRA to complete before the end of 2020. Almost three-quarters of passenger railroads (21 of 29) reported that they, or the railroad which owns the track on which they operate, will apply for an extension. More than half of these railroads reported planning to apply for an extension using substitute criteria, and of these, eight intend to apply for substitute criteria based on field testing. Though use of substitute criteria is authorized in law, this approach defers time-intensive RSD testing into 2019 and beyond.

In addition, passenger railroads reported that they continue to face many of the same challenges GAO previously identified, such as software defects and limited industry-wide availability of vendors. Further, passenger railroads expressed concern that FRA’s workload will markedly increase as railroads submit requests for extension approvals. FRA has acknowledged concerns about the pending surge of submissions and agency officials said they have taken recent steps to help manage the forthcoming influx of documentation, such as reallocating resources.

However, as of Sept. 21, only one passenger railroad had applied for an extension. It remains unclear how many extension requests FRA will receive or what FRA’s enforcement strategy will be for noncompliance with the statute, such as for railroads that fail to apply for an extension by the deadline.

In March 2018, GAO recommended FRA take steps to systematically communicate extension information to railroads and to use a risk-based approach to prioritize agency resources and workload. FRA has taken some steps to address these recommendations, such as recently communicating and clarifying extension requirements to all railroads during three symposiums. GAO will continue to monitor FRA’s progress

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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