While several U.S rail companies have not yet fully implemented Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, it remains certain that they will shortly.
First mandated in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, the deadline for full PTC implementation looms. Installation of equipment has been accomplished on all Class I railroads, and 91% of route-miles have fully implemented PTC. Testing and activation remain on just 9% of Class 1 railroads.
While implementing PTC is costly, it's mandated to help prevent rail accidents through its advanced positive train control technology, however, PTC does not address all issues related to preventing disaster.
What about track and equipment failure? SCADA and remote monitoring systems can cover this critical function for smooth railway operation to help those railroads that have implemented PTC, as well as those who are in process of updates.
The fact that many railroads have already successfully implemented PTC may sound like it's time for rail companies to brush the dust off each other's shoulders and bask in a job well done, but it's not quite over yet.
Class II and III railroads not subject to the original mandate will need to update their systems, if they haven't already, to run as tenants on a Class I line.
Further regulations will eventually impose additional requirements, extending coverage mandates to smaller tracks. Even railroads who have already achieved full implementation have more work left to do, including ongoing maintenance.
Positive train control required significant capital outlays, with sanctions often producing even more significant noncompliance penalties. Companies had no choice but to pay to install the systems.
Even with the partial defrayment offered by grant programs, each railroad that will implement PTC technology does so at a loss.
While PTC prevents regulatory penalties and accidents, it doesn't increase revenue or cut costs. Even accidents were already covered by insurance. And, railroads, so far, have primarily lost money on PTC. Smaller railroads have felt a larger impact as well.
That's obviously not good. Whether or not they run on time, trains run on money. So railroad companies are tasked with finding strategic ways to leverage their new PTC capabilities to either increase revenue or cut costs. Several present themselves. Let's take a look.
To see how companies can implement PTC effectively, we'll need to peel back a few layers. Just like a rose by any other name is still a flower, PTC is just one variant form of a SCADA system. SCADA stands for "Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition", and that's exactly what it does, too.
With PTC controllers installed in each locomotive and waypoint unit, and radio towers built or leased along each branch of track, railroads now have a way to acquire vast amounts of real-time data. That's the "data acquisition" part.
The "supervisory control" aspect of SCADA is the reason PTC was mandated in the first place: it's the ability to physically manipulate objects from a distance.
Namely, it allows automatic systems or dispatchers to control trains from a central location.
Specifically, using PTC/SCADA, a central command will stop trains that are behaving dangerously, as they might prior to a crash. How does the system know to exert supervisory control? Data acquisition.
Traveling over speed, through the wrong signal, into closed maintenance areas, or toward another oncoming train will each cause an alert to be transmitted from the locomotive or waypoint unit. Here's an example of how this can work:
This is the minimum capability required and is intended to reduce the occurrence of train accidents due to human error (which causes the largest share of train accidents).
There are, however, two other major causes of rail accidents as well: track and equipment failure. PTC, as mandated, doesn't address these issues. But SCADA can.
In most industries, SCADA is used to improve maintenance results and system reliability. The primary technology required is the ability to transmit real-time data from remote locations. This allows maintenance managers to diagnose problems as they arise, but before they cause equipment failure.
Maintenance managers then can react by dispatching workers, with the proper equipment, to fix emerging issues before they cause harm. Doing so improves on scheduled maintenance, which is based on average historical failure rates, not current equipment needs.
Monitoring equipment and track for maintenance needs also will improve rail reliability, as it prevents unexpected slowdowns or shutdowns. It also informs dispatchers of unsafe conditions beyond those specifically required by PTC.
For instance, waypoint sensors will detect track temperature, which will inform dispatch to lower speeds or reroute due to ice or metal-softening heat.
With the SCADA technology in place already, rail companies can continue to expand the range of inputs they monitor for unsafe track, equipment, and operating conditions.
The greatly increased amount of real-time data gathered will inform more accurate future historical averages, improving maintenance schedules and training.
Positive train control technology triggers can expand as well, as sensors gather more data. Eventually, PTC technology could even lead to autonomous trains.
Implementing PTC technology takes foresight and partnerships. Seeing the potential of the technology, beyond a simple regulatory burden, allows rail companies to turn the mandated cost into a tangible benefit.
Partnering with a PTC vendor that is well versed in SCADA and remote monitoring technology and its powerful potential will help railroads build a successful future.
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