With roughly 7.8 million registered vehicles and a vibrant car culture, Los Angeles is perhaps the unofficial driving capital of America.
But the city that’s known as much for gridlock as it is for Hollywood glamour is also leading the way in rolling out cutting-edge automated train technology, which helps make freight and passenger rail safer than ever before.
Los Angeles, for instance, was an early implementer of positive train control (PTC), a revolutionary system of highly advanced technologies designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents can occur.
Using a sophisticated system that utilizes on-board computers, precision GPS monitoring, a secure wireless communications network, and a back office server capable of storing millions of encrypted rail network data points, PTC monitors a train’s speed, composition and location in order to automatically apply the brakes if necessary.
PTC will provide an advanced warning to the engineer if a train violates speed limits or mandatory operational directives, giving the engineer time to react and bring the train to a safe speed or controlled stop. If corrective action is not taken, PTC will automatically apply the brakes and safely stop the train, preventing certain accidents caused by human error like derailments due to excessive speed, train movements through misaligned track switches, and train-to-train collisions like the tragic 2008 Chatsworth accident.
In that incident, a Metrolink commuter train inadvertently ran a stop signal and collided with a Union Pacific freight train that had the right of way. That accident crystallized the need to develop and deploy PTC technology and spurred Los Angeles freight and passenger railroads to prioritize this potentially life-saving technology.
In fact, L.A.’s Metrolink was the first commuter railroad in America to install and implement PTC on all of their lines. As of the first quarter of 2018, Metrolink had PTC on all of its 112 locomotives, all 249 miles of their track and had trained all employees on the system, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. In all, Metrolink reports that PTC is being used on 67 percent of their routes from Lancaster to Oceanside and Moorpark to San Bernardino.
The most significant challenge with PTC implementation is ensuring the system works seamlessly across different rail operations, and Los Angeles is also leading the way in this effort thanks in large part to investment from BNSF and Union Pacific, which have privately invested more than $4.5 billion into PTC development across their companies’ footprints. Metrolink commuter trains are interoperable with BNSF and Union Pacific freight trains in L.A., meaning that PTC-equipped passenger and freight locomotives function identically when traveling across each other’s tracks and territories.
Additionally, BNSF and Union Pacific combined have installed PTC on more than 22,000 miles of track and have trained more than 46,000 of their employees on the technology, and both are on schedule to meet federal installation deadlines by the end of 2018. Railroads will then enter into a 24-month testing period to ensure that the system is fully interoperable and works properly for any PTC-equipped locomotive running on any railroad tracks across the country where PTC is required. America’s seven largest freight railroads, known as Class I’s, will meet all deadlines, having all testing completed and the system fully operational, by the end of 2020.
The scale of installation and implementation of PTC on America’s railroads is unlike anything ever attempted before in the transportation sector. For the system to work correctly, railroads must map more than 54,000 route-miles, install PTC technology on more than 17,200 locomotives, install 24,000 wayside communications units, and complete signal replacement projects at 14,500 locations. All told, freight railroads have collectively spent more than $8 billion developing and deploying PTC and expect to spend more than $13 billion total by the time PTC is fully operational nationwide.
That brings us back to Los Angeles, where the hard work has and is being done to get PTC interoperability and integration right. The railroad’s work here serves as a model for PTC implementation in other large urban areas around the country.
And all of it will help meet the goal of making freight and passenger rail — already one of the world’s safest modes of transportation — safer than ever.
Edward R. Hamberger is the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.