Amtrak to Congress: Trains Will Run on January 1st
September 13, 2018
In testimony before Congress today, Amtrak provided its clearest statement yet that train service will continue on Positive Train Control-exempt routes in 2019, contradicting earlier reporting by Trains that the Amtrak Board was requiring PTC on those lines. Amtrak’s statement is good news for passengers that rely on the routes in question, including the Cardinal, California Zephyr, Texas Eagle, Downeaster, Vermonter, Ethan Allen, and City of New Orleans.
In testimony before a House Transportation & Infrastructure Rail Subcommittee hearing on PTC implementation, Amtrak’s Executive Vice President and COO Scot Naparstek said the railroad is developing alternative ways to reach elevated levels of safety.
“While this risk analysis process and mitigation plan development is still underway, let me be clear that Amtrak’s goal is to continue to operate all of our services over all of our current routes come January 1, 2019,” he told the gathered representatives. “Exactly how we accomplish this will vary across our network, based on the specifics of each route, but I want to assure the Committee that, at this time, we believe we will have strategies in place that will permit us to continue operations until operational PTC or PTC-equivalency is achieved for all of our network.”
“It’s good that Amtrak is beginning to demonstrate more transparency to the Congress and to the public about its plans for the National Network,” said Jim Mathews, President & CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “There’s no denying that the implementation of PTC on 58,000 route-miles is a huge challenge, but it’s a necessary challenge that we must meet. As we go about that task, we can’t afford to forget passenger rail is still ten times safer than driving, and the traveling public will be less safe if we reduce access to train service. As complications arise, we encourage Amtrak to keep the channels of communication open to help passengers better understand the evolution of the Network they depend on.”
Critically, Mr. Naparstek’s testimony does appear to undermine one of the central rationales Amtrak has put forward for breaking up the Southwest Chief route with a bus-bridge. In its presentation to local officials, Amtrak stated it would “require PTC for this segment for long-term operation,” with an estimated $23 million in installation costs and $3.5 million in annual operating costs. By identifying “PTC-equivalencies” for main track exemptions, Amtrak is admitting what Rail Passengers has been arguing all year: there are lower-cost alternatives to ensuring the safety of the Chief’s passengers.
Rail Passengers has excerpted the relevant portion of Mr. Naparstek’s testimony below:
To prepare for operations where PTC is not in service, we have been conducting detailed risk assessments to enable us to develop an appropriate array of risk mitigation measures to address those areas that are not mitigated by a functional PTC system, consistent with our Safety Management System methodology. Starting in late spring, our safety team began a detailed, cross-departmental process of reviewing every portion of our network falling in one of two cate- gories: places where an MTEA is present or places where we had reason to believe PTC is mandated but the railroads will qualify for an alternative schedule. Members of the safety team lead these assessments, ten of whom are dedicated to this process.
These assessments are being worked through as quickly as possible while ensuring the quality of the work, and those covering MTEA territory are slated to be complete by the end of October, with the rest by the end of the year. As this work is all above and beyond statutory requirements, the timing is driven by our own Safety Management System approach.
The central value of these assessments will be their role in determining what mitigations will be necessary to adopt for a given location over a given period to ensure Amtrak has a high degree of confidence in our ability to operate the safest possible railroad, short of the installation of PTC. We envision these potential mitigations in three tiers or layers.
The first is made up of changes to our operations, which may go beyond compliance with the host railroads’ rulebooks to create a greater safety margin for our operations. These changes, most of which could be implemented almost immediately, could include reducing the maximum speed of our trains, further reducing speed when we approach facing point switches, or even changing the composition of our crews. In some cases, these changes may impose delays on our trains, but we believe that the additional level of safety is justified.
The second level of potential mitigations would be technological in nature but would take the form of relatively simple infrastructural changes that could be installed fairly quickly to add additional safety measures. Examples of such mitigations include warning signs for the crews, or new switch position indicators, both of which would provide additional situational awareness for our employees. The idea is to add these additional layers of mitigation to the system, which may then allow us to remove or minimize some of the more inconvenient operational mitigations we initially put in place.
The third and final layer of mitigations consists of more elaborate technological solutions that would take more time to develop and deploy. In many cases, we may determine that a full PTC system is the best long-term solution to strengthening safety on a given route. In other cases, we believe there may be various technologies, that when coupled with the other mitigations I have mentioned, could offer what we term “PTC equivalency” once they were ready. Many of the ideas in this category are in early stages, and still have significant operational and procedural issues that will need to be resolved. Nonetheless, we are determined to be open to innovative approaches to obtaining the benefits of PTC across all of our network.
While this risk analysis process and mitigation plan development is still underway, let me be clear that Amtrak’s goal is to continue to operate all of our services over all of our current routes come January 1, 2019. Exactly how we accomplish this will vary across our network, based on the specifics of each route, but I want to assure the Committee that, at this time, we believe we will have strategies in place that will permit us to continue operations until operational PTC or PTC-equivalency is achieved for all of our network.
"The support from the Rail Passengers Association, and from all of you individually, has been incredibly important to Amtrak throughout our history and especially so during the last trying year."
Bill Flynn, Amtrak CEO
April 19, 2021, speaking to attendees at the Rail Passengers Virtual Spring Advocacy Conference