Friday, October 30, 2009

Positive Train Control and Amtrak

It appears that the first impact of the provisions within the Rail Safety Act of 2008 are coming home to Amtrak, as TRAINS Newswire reports that the BNSF has "put out feelers" to Amtrak regarding reroute of the Southwest Chief via their main "Transcon" line that last saw a scheduled passenger train on A-Day. Such a reroute would again provide Amarillo TX and Wichita KS with service but would leave Raton NM and the Boy Scout's Philmont Ranch as well as Albuquerque without. While this proposal represents a "treading of old sod", this is the first mention of such since enactment of RSIA '08 and its 2015 target date for installation of Positive Train control over all lines that handle passenger trains, as well as on lines that handle any appreciable volume of Hazardous Material.

Here is straight from the Act:

Sec. 20157. Implementation of positive train control systems

‘(a) In General-

‘(1) PLAN REQUIRED- Not later than 18 months after the date of enactment of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, each Class I railroad carrier and each entity providing regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation shall develop and submit to the Secretary of Transportation a plan for implementing a positive train control system by December 31, 2015, governing operations on--

‘(A) its main line over which intercity rail passenger transportation or commuter rail passenger transportation, as defined in section 24102, is regularly provided;

‘(B) its main line over which poison- or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials, as defined in parts 171.8, 173.115, and 173.132 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, are transported; and

‘(C) such other tracks as the Secretary may prescribe by regulation or order.

‘(2) IMPLEMENTATION- The plan shall describe how it will provide for interoperability of the system with movements of trains of other railroad carriers over its lines and shall, to the extent practical, implement the system in a manner that addresses areas of greater risk before areas of lesser risk. The railroad carrier shall implement a positive train control system in accordance with the plan.

Part 173.115 seems to cover anything that goes "up in smoke". 173.132 seems to be anything that could take care of your "sniffles" - and then a little more. I must note my surprise in that the Act does not address 173.50, or "things that go boom".

Here is a "quick reference" link to HAZMAT

I continue to hold, and others apparently concur, that the PTC mandate under RSIA '08 will result in reroutes of both passenger trains and HAZMAT. It will also raise the threshold at which a railroad will say 'that line is no longer worth it" i.e. it generated enough on-line traffic or was a nice detour to have "just in case' with its existing train control system. There could well be loss of passenger train service or, where loss of any rail service is on the table, the spectre of 're-reg'.

Now to address the issue at hand. As I noted, the Scouts have been very loyal to both the railroads and Amtrak over the years, and many a railroad executive 'got there' owing to contacts (whoops, networking in newspeak) he made through being active in Scouting. But loyalty has its price - and the maintenance to passenger train standards of some 200 miles of track solely to accommodate the "one a day", especially since the ante is being greatly raised as a result of the PTC mandate, just may now come at too high a price.

Another factor favoring the reroute is the double tracking through the Abo Canyon on the "Transcon". Apparently this project has moved forth - Recession notwithstanding. With or without passenger trains, that line either has or will have a train control system that will qualify as "PTC". There is also the possibility that passenger traffic potential at both Amarillo and , albeit "plane loving", Wichita will offset losses at Albuquerque which would likely continue to be served by an Ambus through Belen. Bypassing major cities is nothing new for Amtrak - even the "Amshack in the Styx" cases of Richmond and Jacksonville represent a "bypass".

In short, I think the industry could care less, and likely even endorse, any PTC implementation over publicly owned lines such as the NEC that predominately handle passenger trains. After all, who will pay the bills?

While the Metrolink incident at Chatsworth CA would have been avoided with an active PTC system, I still have to question how HAZMAT incidents occurring either at Weyauwega WI or Rockford IL could have been avoided even if such were in place.

All told, this one could well end up a "happen" this time.