Teddy Bear – “PTC is Vital”

“PTC is Vital.”

It was a slow process, but perseverance has paid off.  This Teddy Bear as to PTC being vital has only the faintest shade of presence. Most individuals that have anything to do with PTC now understand that PTC is NOT vital. But, just in case, here’s the story.

It was in the earliest meetings of the PTC- Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) process a decade or so ago that there was a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding as to what PTC was and what it did.  Indeed, the first primary task for the RSAC members, that included FRA, rail management, labor representatives, and suppliers, was to define the “core objectives” of PTC.  Within several RSAC sessions, the core objectives were determined to be 3-fold:


keep trains from hitting trains, keep trains from over-speeding, and keep trains from endangering work gangs.

An additional objective of protecting against grade crossings was introduced but readily dropped due to the physics of train movements and the ownership of the property. That is, to stop a freight train in time to prevent an accident involving a grade crossing situation, e.g., failure of gate to lower, would require such a long time for the gate to be lowered that the public would be more likely to run around the gates.  Additionally, the railroads in general own the property, and it is the public’s responsibility to watch out for trains – not the other way around.

Lastly, a fourth core objective has been added with the PTC mandate, i.e. prevent a train from moving through a misaligned switch. Once initial three core objectives of PTC were established, the next challenge for RSAC was to obtain a status of PTC efforts across the industry.It was at this time that I had the first of a number of opportunities to present Communications Based Traffic Management (CBTM), the PTC effort for which I was the architect at CSX.

CBTM was the first overlay approach to be developed, and as such it established the underlying basis for the current PTC pursuits by the freight railroads to meet the mandate. It also was the first overlay PTC project that had to confront the point of vitality. My first presentation to the RSAC members stating that CBTM was not vital began a long education process to get past various perspectives of vitality that existed at that time, as follows: First, key members of the FRA believed everything was vital in the overly-zealous spirit of zero tolerance for risk. Second, Labor thought by not being vital meant that the vitalities (lives) of the crew members were not being protected, as in “Does PTC apply the brakes or not?” Lastly, traditional signaling personnel, whether railroads or suppliers, view vitality as the state of failing safely, as in track circuits, relays, and control point logic. Hence, their logic proceeds that anything associated with that infrastructure needs to be vital as well thereby requiring extensive engineering, verification & validation (V&V), and duplication of hardware.

My challenge was to describe vitality in a fashion that would be acceptable to all.  The solution was to introduce an operational / functional perspective in lieu of the regulatory, technical, or humanistic ones. Simply stated, I defined vitality as the means by which movement authorities are generated so as to maintain the integrity of train movements. Hence, with such a definition, it follows that PTC is not vital since it has nothing to do with the generation, or even transmission, of movement authorities. (BTW, it is for this reason that PTC can not improve traffic density as discussed in another Teddy Bear Posting: PTC Business Benefits.) As the result of this effort, one issue of my quarterly journal, Full Spectrum, was so dedicated and titled Vital’s Vanity. As a closing point, it is appropriate to introduce here what is so often overlooked by people when they talk about vitality.  That is, there is a threshold of vitality that exists whether the territory is signaled, non-signaled, and does or does not have PTC or other enforcement systems. I am referring to the Book of Rules.

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