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PTC: Caveat Emptor

Prior to the PTC mandate in November 2008, the misunderstandings about PTC were starting to narrow down to just a few issues. Fortunately, the fact that PTC is not vital had fairly well stabilized across the industry. But there remained the most persistent, fatuous belief that PTC delivered business value, followed closely by the corollary that such business benefits would be achieved after the deployment of PTC. Actually, the second point is pathetically true somewhat because there is a tremendous lack of understanding, proper management direction, and executive bonus incentives as to what railroads can do NOW without PTC with the use of the simplest of wireless data infrastructures, whether it be owned and/or commercial (cellular / satellite). As proof of this point, as noted in previous postings on this blog (Really! You Gotta Let It Go), NS is leading the charge in the industry, followed by BNSF in actually achieving such business benefits now without PTC.

Since the mandate of PTC, a whole new plateau of misunderstandings and misrepresentations regarding PTC has been reached.  Some of these are perhaps innocent mistakes, but others are clearly the result of  misleading, if not fraudulent, activities by suppliers and consulting firms alike. This is not a point of concern for the Class Is in that they know what PTC is and what it will take. Afterall, they have taken the charge to define PTC themselves with little to no interest in help from the supplier community. My concern, rather, is for the commuters and regional rail transit systems that are looking for a path through the PTC implementation mine field armed with regulations, budget constraints, the challenge of public financing, and long-established relationships with selected suppliers who have no experience in PTC.

PTC, as to be deployed in the U.S, is only one form of enforcement systems that are meant to ensure that movement authorities are not violated as to some combination of time, distance, and speed. They are deployed to prevent train crew errors (whereas traffic control systems prevent dispatcher errors). Examples of enforcement systems in addition to PTC include, Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES) as used by Amtrak on the NE Corridor,  various forms of Automatic Train Protection (ATP) as deployed across Europe and elsewhere (e.g., ETCS, LZB ), and various forms of Automatic Train Control (ATC) over the years. The critical point here is that while all of these systems are enforcement systems, they can differ substantially as to the technologies and challenges involved in designing, implementing and maintaining. Consider the following differences between PTC and ACSES.

APPLICATION

ACSES is an overlay on cab signaling for the NE corridor. Contrarily, PTC is an overlay system for traffic control systems other than cab signaling, including both dark (non-signaled) and signaled operations.

FUNCTIONALITY

ACSES, as originally designed, does not provide for 1 of the 4 core objectives of PTC as mandated. That is, it doesn’t provide protection for work gangs in the NEC in that those workers do not have authorities, per se’, to be there. The maintainers use watchmen to inform them of approaching trains. (BTW, I have a patent pending for a slick solution to this problem. But getting funding, yet alone purchase orders, has been impossible.)  ACSESS II will provide for such protection I understand. Additionally, neither PTC nor ACSES have addressed the likelihood that additional capabilities will be required by commuter and regional rail operators – more on this in a forthcoming posting. Lastly, the critical aspects of the braking algorithm for freight trains, compared to the relative simplicity of passenger trains, will be an on-going challenge as to the reliability and acceptance of PTC.

ARCHITECTURE

PTC is dependent upon a ubiquitous wireless data network with a different set of wayside / in-track components than that of ACSES. Also, PTC requires a central-office server that links with the dispatching and signaling platforms through various means. PTC requires its own on-board platform that will most likely be integrated at some point with other on-board systems for advanced train / locomotive management.

MAINTENANCE

Given the substantial difference in architecture and functionality between ACSES and PTC, it is not difficult to understand that the maintenance issues are substantially different.

TRAINING

Given the substantial difference in architecture and functionality between ACSES and PTC, it is not difficult to understand that the training issues are substantially different.

INSTALLATION

Given the substantial difference in architecture and functionality between ACSES and PTC, it is not difficult to understand that the installation issues are substantially different.

MANAGEMENT

I know nothing of the type of management overview that is used by Amtrak’s operations management regarding attempted violations, etc. of ACSES operations, but providing the same for PTC will be more complex . . . that is once the railroads recognize that this is a requirement.

Considering the above, I come back to the point of misunderstanding / misrepresentation by suppliers and consultants following the mandate of PTC.  First, I provide the They’re Just Stupid perspective followed by the They’re Lying perspective of what is happening in North America to the likely disadvantage of both the commuter / regional rail operators as well as the suppliers / consultants with legitimate PTC credentials.

They’re Just Stupid

Yes! ACSES / ATP / ATC / ETCS, etc. do provide for various combinations of PTC functionality as mandated. However, having designed, implemented, and/or consulted on ACSES, ATP, ATC, ETCS, etc. does not qualify a supplier or consultant in any fashion to say that they have PTC experience given the above comparison between PTC and ACSES.  But yet, consulting firms and suppliers that had not been involved with PTC development in any fashion prior to the mandate have since expanded their credentials and list of brochures presenting themselves as PTC experienced.  To do so is an act of stupidity and/or blind arrogance on their part. BTW, CBTC credentials are not appropriate either.

They’re Lying

Yes! ACSES / ATP / ATC / ETCS,etc. do provide for various combinations of PTC functionality as mandated. However, having designed, implemented, and/or consulted on ACSES, ATP, ATC, ETCS, etc. does not qualify a supplier or consultant in any fashion to say that they have PTC experience given the above comparison between PTC and ACSES. But yet, consulting firms and suppliers that had not been involved with PTC development in any fashion prior to the mandate are scamming clients that they have such expertise with a hope and a prayer that they will get the contracts and learn on the job or hire the necessary truly qualified talent. BTW, CBTC credentials are not appropriate either.

In closing, a RFP was issued by the FTA to study the issues of deploying PTC across commuter and regional rail operators. That RFP has now closed as to the submission of proposals. It will be interesting to see what team is awarded that contract as to their actual vs. promoted credentials; definitely a forthcoming posting.

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