The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began recommending automatic train control in 1970. “Positive train separation” technology (later renamed PTC) was first placed on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List in 1990.
On the afternoon of September 12, 2008, a Metrolink train ran through a red signal in Los Angeles and collided head-on with a freight train. Twenty-five people were killed in the collision. Following an investigation, the NTSB determined that the accident was caused by the engineer failing to observe and respond to the red signal because he was texting. The accident led to the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008. The RSIA mandated PTC systems be installed on all passenger and Class 1 freight carriers by December 31, 2015. The Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act of 2015 (PTCEI Act; implemented as part of the Surface Transportation Act of 2015) subsequently amended the RSIA and extended the deadline to December 31, 2018, or 2020 for some qualifying railroads.
HR 4766 came in response to an Amtrak train crash near DuPont, Washington. On December 18, 2017, Amtrak Train 501 derailed from a highway overpass at 78 miles per hour on a track with a 30 mile per hour speed restriction, killing three people and injuring another 62. In their preliminary report, the NTSB determined that if PTC had been implemented:
- PTC would have notified the engineer that the train was moving too fast for the track conditions; and
- PTC would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction and to stop the train.
In total, 41 carriers are required to implement PTC systems by the deadline, according to a report posted by the Federal Railroad Administration in December 2017. As of September 30, 2017, twelve carriers had completed installation of all the necessary PTC hardware. Another twelve have completed 50% of the work. One year before the 2018 deadline, just 24% of track owned by passenger railroads have fully operational PTC systems installed.
The FRA estimates full PTC implementation will cover 60,000 miles of track and 20,000 locomotives and will cost nearly $3.5 billion. The American Association of Railroads estimates that freight railroads have spent more than $8 billion on PTC development and deployment.