Complexities of PTC – From a Rail Supplier Perspective

The National Transportation Safety Board recently identified rail safety, and the complex safety system known as positive train control, or PTC, as top national priorities. In this context, it is important that the public and media understand that railroads and the companies that supply materials and technology to railroads work doggedly every day to ensure trains operate safely.

Article Published By: GoRail;  Author: Mike Cook, President, RCL Services Group

Taking over 500 components for multiple railroads, wiring them together according to each railroad’s specification, ensuring they work correctly and then sending the final product to a railroad site — for connecting to tracks, underground cables, signal structures, and communications towers — is complex and challenging work. It is the work we do at RCL Wiring and it is critically important to the safe implementation of PTC technology.

The nation’s freight railroads recently filed their plans for implementing PTC, as required by Congress. Installing this highly advanced technology, which is designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents occur, is a huge undertaking because it must be put on some 60,000 miles of tracks shared with passenger trains and tracks that carry certain hazardous materials.

RCL has wired train control and safety systems for railroads for years, but the 2008 requirement that railroads install PTC changed the game.

While previously our focus was assembling the technology that operates railroad signals — lights, crossing gates, switches, and the like — PTC adds a new layer of advanced technology to our work.

With the addition of new PTC processors, our products control not only railroads signals, but they also handle the stream of inputs and outputs that are constantly communicated between moving locomotives and back-office servers at dispatch offices. This ensures that railroads know the exact position of a train, its speed and the status of the rail network — and can remotely control that train to avoid an accident.

This is exciting, highly advanced and complex technology designed to make an already-safe rail network even safer.

The rush to install PTC on freight and passenger tracks has put a big demand on manpower, training and equipment — both the components required to assemble the technology and the equipment required to distribute it. While the entire railroad industry is part of a major effort to install this technology, it is most important that we do it right.

At RCL, we test every component that comes into our shop to make sure it works as intended prior to assembly. We then test the assembled system to make sure it has been put together correctly before testing a final time to ensure it works according to its design. In our lab setting, we are able to connect our products to actual railroad signals and equipment that simulate controls coming in and going out.

But even after we’re satisfied here in Sedalia, our products are integrated into real-world systems with moving locomotives, existing signals, various communications and radio systems and varying PTC servers at railroads across the country. Given the critical role of railroads to our economy and the importance and complexity of PTC technology, taking the time to test and get it right has enormous consequences.

Freight railroads have a long history of network investments — some $600 billion since 1980 — that lead to innovation and safety advances, as discussed in a Special Report issued by the Association of American Railroads this week. Investments by freight railroads help us employ about 100 people at our facility in Sedalia and we are proud of the role RCL plays in bringing technologies like PTC to life.