Credit: Stephen Rees

Despite having all the necessary equipment for positive train control (PTC) operation installed between Everett and Tacoma, the safety system is not fully operational on all Sounder trips, Sound Transit said Wednesday.

In a letter to boardmembers, CEO Peter Rogoff said that currently, due to technical issues associated with new deployments, only about 56% of trips operate under PTC. 

PTC technology requires the installation of wayside equipment along the track as well as onboard locomotives, monitored by a back-office system. In the letter, Rogoff said Sound Transit, which owns the stretch of track from Tacoma to DuPont where Monday’s incident occurred, has already installed all wayside PTC equipment and all Sounder locomotives are equipped with PTC hardware. According to Rogoff, BNSF has also fully installed and activated PTC along the section of track from Tacoma to Everett. BNSF also handles Sound Transit’s PTC back-office system at its control center in Texas.

“Before PTC is operational on a given segment all of these equipment systems must communicate with each other seamlessly following complex configuration work and the completion of testing,” Rogoff said in the letter.

He told boardmembers “the system can actively and automatically control a train if an engineer fails to adhere to operating parameters such as speed limits.”

PTC has been fully implemented on over 15,000 miles of track in the United States, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The system can prevent derailments caused by excessive speed, a potential factor in Monday’s deadly derailment of an Amtrak Cascades train.

Rogoff said that, according to the American Public Transportation Association, of the 41 rail operators required to implement PTC by the 2018 deadline, Sound Transit is one of only 12 that have already installed all of the necessary equipment. But only two commuter rail agencies are fully certified for PTC operations: SEPTA in Philadelphia and Metrolink in Los Angeles.

“While a small handful of agencies are ahead of us, we are ahead of easily two-thirds of our peers and are working diligently to implement PTC ahead of the federal deadline,” Rogoff said.

“There are multiple players here, it’s not something that Sound Transit can do by itself,” he added.

According to The Seattle Times, Amtrak locomotives don’t yet employ PTC in the area where the crash occurred.

Sound Transit expects PTC integration to be completed by the second quarter of 2018, but “implementation steps with other agencies mean that we will not control the exact date of full PTC activation.”

“It is a partnership that requires the effort of all agencies to get the technology fully employed,” Rogoff said.

43 Replies to “Sound Transit Working to Install PTC Ahead of 2018 Deadline”

    1. In typical Rogoff fashion, we are only getting part of the story.

      From the 2017 Q3 progess report, the summary narrative states:

      “ST is in the process of preparing to retract our PTC Implementation Plan and move the (sic) be fully covered by BNSF’s PTCIP and PTCSP as they have effective operating control of Sounder. Brake testing of rolling stock is complete as is interoperability testing of ST rolling stock on BNSF territory. Additional work for capacity increases the (sic) Lakewood Sub has added to the amount of wayside infrastructure that will be in the final implementation….”

  1. I’m not buying the “it’s too complicated” plea. Albeit, the most complex part of the equation seems to be the amount of government regulation. This would not happen in Japan which has had the technology for years (decades?). That said, Spain seems to be on the same track as the US:
    2017 Saville
    2016 O Porriño
    2013 Santiago de Compostela (79 killed)
    2012 Loranca Metrosur
    2012 Mataró

    1. Not sure what “government regulation” you would want to change. After all, government regulation created the demand that PTC be installed.

      One of the blockages was the failure of congress to allocate radio spectrum for the signals, so the allocation and purchasing of the required radio spectrum was done piecemeal over a long period. If regulation of the radio spectrum is the issue you have a complaint with, then I can only hope that you are willing to give up your favorite radio station for electronic noise or pirate radio broadcasts.

      Japan has actually had this type of derailment as well. Amagasaki was pretty much exactly like this, without the freeway under the train.

      Japan had automatic train stop for a long time, but the predictive nature of what they want to do with PTC requires a pretty extensive data stream between the train and the signal system, and that isn’t something that has been possible for that long.

      Granted, this should have happened much earlier, but with the main line freight railroads issuing pushback every step of the way, the only way to get there was the Chatsworth collision.

      1. Radio frequency isn’t a rare commodity. One of the benefits of eliminating the old NTSC analog TV signals was it freed up a huge amount of bandwidth because with digital they could cram stations closer together. Those particular frequencies were like gold because they were originally chosen because they carry the best through air. But, as I understand it, there is no need for long distance communication but only from the locomotive to the nearest trackside signalling device. A big money maker for the railroads has been leasing out their ROW for fiber optic cable runs. Locomotives make pretty awesome trenching machines!

        I’m not sure why the Class A railroads are fighting technology. I’ve seen pictures of the UP control center in Omaha and it’s more high tech than the Apollo mission control. They already barcode and track the location of every shipment in real time. I can only surmise that copious and redundant regulations assuring every equipment vendor gets their piece of the pie has become “the perfect being the enemy of the good”. Really, a simple phone app that started beeping when over speed may have prevented this. There are free apps that do this and work virtually flawlessly in your car and the highway system is far more complex than our rail lines.

      2. They are fighting technology because PTC is an expense with very little financial benefit. The argument they always make is that there are other things they could spend the money on that would improve safety better.

        Sure, they spend all sorts of money on technology, but that is technology that helps them operate with fewer employees, and therefore has a return on investment.

        PTC isn’t an expense that they would want to do if passenger service isn’t there. Basically, as far as they are concerned, a few collisions once in a while is a cost of doing business and PTC increases those costs above the costs of dealing with those occasional collisions. They have a more delicate way of wording it, but it basically comes down to what’s most profitable.

        As far as radio frequency “not being a rare commodity” the fact is it is increasingly full of various devices, from WiFi and cell phones to drones and a variety of other things. For the system to work reliably and be certified as a safety critical system they need to not have any interference. There are a number of articles on the issue of PTC and the fact that congress didn’t allocate a radio spectrum for this, and thus having to tackle the subject piecemeal.

        This is one of a number of them.

      3. I agree that a dedicated frequency should have been mandated so that every piece of equipment on every track in the country uses one frequency.

        If the railroads are fighting it because of expense then instead of mandating every nuance of the implementation just tell them that in six weeks if it’s not implemented all trains running without it will require a caboose and full crew. Want to see it happen real fast…

      4. Bernie:

        Radio frequency spectrum is in-fact a rare commodity, and is a carefully managed resource in high demand, especially in the VHF and UHF bands which are best suited to short range communications that PTC would likely need.

        The transition from analogue to digital TV in the US didn’t free up much in the way of spectrum, bar some upper UHF channel that cellular could make use of, especially for LTE. Apart from that they simply switched to digital broadcasting on the same bands (other countries moved DTV exclusively to UHF and vacated VHF low band 45 to 65MHz and VHF high band 170 – 240MHz) – Broadcast television is high powered stuff, trying to mix low powered short range two-way communication systems in amongst is not practical.

        Since PTC is safety system, and needs to be highly reliable, it ideally would need its own slice of exclusive spectrum across the US, and also not infringe on how that spectrum is allocated and used in Canada and Mexico to avoid interference or degraded performance. Easier said than done.

      5. Backwards. UHF and VHF are ideal for long distance. Trains shouldn’t need to transmit long distances. If they do they’re SOL anyway because the signal would be blocked by virtue of being transmitted from such a low height. With digital the frequencies can be divided much finer than when we had only analog. That’s why you have instead of channel 6 7 8 you’ve got 7.1 7.2 7.2 etc. all in the same spectrum. Anyway. I’m sure cellular carriers would be happy to have dedicated frequency in exchange for the right to put cell towers along the ROW. It’s the cell phone industry that’s got the voracious appetite. But they are also desperate for places they can install towers.

        The point is, it can be done. It’s not rocket science. We know exactly what needs to be done. It just didn’t get done.

  2. If I were Rogoff my response would have been:

    “PTC is a $15 billion unfunded mandate with multi-jurisdictional software compatibility issues. Show me the money and I’ll show you full implementation of PTC.”

    This is going to be a critical point going forward as the current administration slashes funding for transit/rail (and many other things) to plug part of the hole left by the tax bill, but continues to mandate improvements to service and safety to qualify for those diminished funds….or even worse removes any safety and oversight.

    NASA is being led by a guy who used to like rockets as a kid while FRA is being led by a guy who has pretty much no background in rail (other than in internship in the 1990s that didn’t go well) and questions the need for pretty much any safety requirements or funding.

    Chao and Hall have been noticeably quiet on the Amtrak crash.

    1. I don’t buy the “unfunded mandate” line of argument.

      If TVs were killing or injuring people, and a federal safety agency required TV manufacturers to fix the problem, should the Feds pay the cost of the new features to prevent the problem? No. Train operators should also be responsible for the costs of reasonable safety features.

      Now, I will buy an argument that PTC has been so slow and costly to implement due to the FRA botching the regulatory framework.

      1. Fixing a TV flaw does not require installing sensors all the way from TV stations to the TV, or 2-way communication between the TV and the sensors. It just requires making sure the TV doesn’t electrocute people or burn down the house or explode.

        Which raises an interesting question: why do TVs have to be safer than oil trains?

    2. “PTC is a $15 billion unfunded mandate with multi-jurisdictional software compatibility issues. Show me the money and I’ll show you full implementation of PTC.”

      The act was passed back in 2008. The rail companies have had nearly a decade to get the safety improvements implemented. And even if the feds had fully funded these requirements, Sound Transit would find a way to blow a hole through their budget.

  3. A railroad engineer named Brian Bundridge, hope I’ve got the spelling right, used to be fairly close to Seattle Transit Blog. I think a few words from him could bring this discussion off the dark twin worlds of bureaucracy and digital technology, and into railroading on the planet Earth. Sunlight and all.

    Specifically, about ten miles of single track with very few trains, along level ground following a freeway alignment closely. From the air, curves look smooth and shallow. Recently incorporated into passenger service between Seattle and Eugene Oregon via Portland.

    Three questions. One, if top speed were held to thirty miles an hour, or forty max, would Positive Train Control be vital enough to delay opening pending its installation? And two, how much irrecoverable time would permanent above speed cost a Portland schedule?

    But number three most important. If your gauges indicated impending complete failure of your air-brakes, would you consider that given your railroad’s mail contract with the Federal Government, you’d be both safe and duty-bound to trust the recently-installed Positive Train Control? Bet before 1900, somebody had the patent on one.

    Remember, the Feds pulled gold teeth for every minute US mail was late. Switching this discussion carefully back to inter-agency and – Government communications and relations leading up to recent events. If there was a midnight train out of Olympia, I might have a lot of nervous company with carpet bags for luggage.



    Found Brian! Man, we really need your help here! But couple of intriguing things in this video. Notice that the engineer’s Control of her Train is exceptionally Positive. Well, a noted railroading lineage COULD have a girl engineer named Casey in this generation!

    But notice also, that somehow proliferation of gauges, bells, a roaring firebox and iron levers which doubtless clank a lot as well as leaving you branded if you touch one isn’t Distracting her at all!
    Been noticing with new latest-model car I’ve ever owned that touch-screen technology makes every heater adjustment or channel-change an every more rapidly-nearing-death experience. Hand held cell phones get the blame because their lobbying budget can’t compete.

    Should be against the law for any control in a driver’s reach, mind, or imagination not to have a switch or a knob at the end of its wire. Crash doesn’t need texting- though usual texting-walking posture really could be naturally-selecting a renovated breed of giant hawks or pterodactyls.

    So investigator’s first action on-scene should be to check and see if the driver’s smart-phone still has OMG! on the screen. If it registers an incoming LOL!…put some other agency in charge of the project.


  5. What was missing last Monday morning was a cohort of experienced train crews that were able to pass along advice or “institutional knowledge” about safe operating procedures on the Bypass. Even though the crews were given a couple of training runs on the new territory and there was a published timetable with rules and regulations, there wasn’t anyone who had years and years of experience on the territory to mentor the new hires on the critical watch points of the route because the route was brand new.

    Whenever we move into a new job situation, we always look to the “old hands” to fill us in on the best ways of getting things done. They can tell us which pieces of equipment work best, what pitfalls to watch out for at the job and the best nearby places for lunch. Those are all the things that make it easier to succeed at the new job but they usually aren’t mentioned in the printed handbook or covered in the new hire orientation. For the train crews running the new Bypass route, there wasn’t any of that “institutional knowledge” or word-of-mouth guidance available regarding what to watch out for on the Bypass because everyone had the same previous experience–just a couple of test runs.

    1. I would imagine there was awareness of a 30mph curve after a long 80mph section. It will likely come out that more training was needed on the new route, but I believe that the risks were communicated.

      1. I’m sure everyone was aware of the 30 mph turn but there wasn’t any sort of “institutional knowledge” on when to apply the brakes and what to watch out for.

      2. A system that relies on “institutional knowledge” is fatally flawed. It’s an admission that training and safety procedures are inadequate.

      3. I think what is meant by ‘institutional knowledge’ is the nuanced aspects.

        Obviously, the NTSB report will identify what went wrong, but each piece of information I’ve been made aware of is leading me towards the ‘airplane crash’ scenario.

        Where a number seemingly minor issues all align ending in the final tragic result.

      4. The fact that 501 went on the ground proves that there were lapses in training, but that doesn’t mean that Amtrak shouldn’t rely on “institutional knowledge”. It just shows that “institutional knowledge” helps to improve training and safety. Try writing a training manual for tying your shoes. It’s easier to learn from a mentor. For safely operating a locomotive there must be written standards, checklists and procedures, but for the actual how-to-do-it experience, it’s most effective to learn from someone who has “been there/done that”.

        It’s just like when I was 16 years old and learning to drive a car. I watched all the films and read all the books in Drivers Ed, I passed the multiple choice test at the DOL with flying colors and I could recite all the driving laws of Washington state. Did that mean I was ready to jump behind the wheel and drive to Tacoma in rush hour traffic? Nope.

      5. The problem is when the system relies on institutional knowledge; just like we do with young drivers. Amtrak has consistently been hammered in past safety investigations for a corporate culture of “just git ‘er done”. In stark contrast is Japan’s system of say it, signal it and other methods that closely resemble the way flight ops are performed on an aircraft carrier. Training is taken seriously rather than just another stupid requirement when “everyone knows” there’s no substitute for on the job training.

      6. “For safely operating a locomotive there must be written standards, checklists and procedures, but for the actual how-to-do-it experience, it’s most effective to learn from someone who has “been there/done that”.”

        The checklist is the minimum things to remember. The watching and experience are the other 90%. All of them are necessary. When I was growing up it was believed that humans simply followed a list of steps or wrote poems by selecting words from a vocabulary the way computers do, but that’s not how humans work. On the other hand, the reason checklists were instantiated for airplane pilots is because they’re trying to remember sixteen things at once and it helps to have a list of essentials to confirm so they don’t forget anything.

      7. If only the real world would behave like the IT industry, where fixing problems with applications and systems is precise because…

        The code documents itself.

  6. How ineffective and counter-productive is the political response: We won’t run any trains on the Bypass route until PTC is implemented.

    No, instead we’ll run them on the more congested, curvier Point Defiance route, which doesn’t have PTC either, and has relatively more frequent slow spots and more traffic, and where another train derailed because it was overspeed.

    It is a completely ineffective response to the problem. It would be safer to have the Amtrak traffic on the bypass route even without PTC than to keep it on the Point Defiance route.

    1. “…Point Defiance route, which doesn’t have PTC either…”
      Do we know for certain that the Point Defiance route does not yet have PTC turned on? I have been searching for a definitive answer, but have not found it.

      1. Amtrak doesn’t have PTC operating yet, so trains won’t be using it on either route.

        I think the decision not to use the new route until PTC is available there reflects the fact that many potential customers will think it’s not safe until it has PTC, depressing ridership.

    2. I’m assuming they are searching for what would be the best option to restore public confindence, and what will do the most to help with the public perception (as opposed to the logical analysis of the commenters on this boad).

      As with airplane crashes, immediately following an incidedent is the safest time because of the heightened awareness of the operators.

      1. Bingo. If they have any hope of even maintaining ridership after this mess, this is the right move.

      2. Curious, Jim. Any chance that open analysis by interested and knowledgeable people with no vested financial or political interest in an investigation’s outcome might engender a ton more public confidence than usual flood of cringe-inducing PR?

        People might also welcome a discussion forum they can join free of charge with a key-stroke. True, if people have been encouraged and admonished to distrust themselves in addition to each other, this could be uncomfortable. But since none of us use our real names, or even have them, newcomers can relax.

        So, you didn’t hear this from me, but as a passenger, I’d go for an ongoing provision of the technical specifics as they become available. Especially first-hand explanations from first-line technicians and their crew leaders.

        I’m told that present popularity of the English language is that it could be the world’s best for getting anything done. But I’ve also noticed something else about it: Anyone who can’t explain anything on Earth in plain English is either lying or can’t figure it out themselves.

        Evidence that such people actually do inspire confidence is disturbing, especially as their devotees redouble their support with each successive ignorant, twisted, inane lie.

        But pretty sure a lot of these voters are so just so glad Hillary Clinton didn’t win that they’re proud of their vote, and all its consequences. They’ll never kill transit with a sheer-spite-vote. Unless transit earns it with its own hard work.

        Mark, but you can’t prove it! And I felt sorry for her!

      3. 1. Wish they would explain to the public why the bypass route is safe. It’s almost certainly safer than the Pt Defiance route because it was only recently rebuilt and has less curves and no moveable bridges
        2. Maybe someone should point out how many motorists are killed on I-5 each year in crashes and compare that to 3 fatalities in 20 years

      4. I don’t think Point Defiance route has the crazy tight 30 mph curves that this new route has. Yes it does have a lot of curves but they can been taken at higher speeds and aren’t abrupt like the bypass.

        I was on a southbound Cascades on Friday evening, it was sold out FWIW.

      5. I believe that the opposite is true – that the Point Defiance route has many more curves and speed changes. A train was derailed by a derailer prior to a speed limited bridge last year.

        See this map:

        It’s frustrating because here we are doing something is not supported by facts or science. There’s not much difference IMHO between not using this route because of nonsense fears than not vaccinating your kids or denying climate change. You can’t say science matters for some decisions and not for others.

      6. What you need is a document called the “Employee Timetable”, which lists every speed change.

        The Point Defiance Line has these speed changes, but it isn’t in a featureless landscape like the area along I-5. The curve into downtown Tacoma is obvious, as is the Point Defiance tunnel.

      7. Well I learned that must not be supported in comments.

        I do not have access to the employee timetable – but even along the straightaway, aren’t there milemarkers as well as markers showing upcoming speed restrictions? There are plenty of railways operating worldwide without PTC in feature less landscapes. They do require employees to pay attention.

  7. Guy and Chris, thanks for only to-the-point discussion since 7:38 am last Monday. Around public transit and similar, if you think “The Feel of the Job” is a figure of speech, tell it to the Medical Examiner. Imagine he’s of a mood to listen right now.

    Anybody who remembers the feel of a steering wheel before it got powered – first bus I drove in training was a 1950’s vintage GMC- misses the FEEL of the road in our BONES. A lot of on-the-job joint and weight-gain problems weren’t there, either. Modernize, of course. Just don’t totally lose.

    In its own way, reason the control of this year’s model vehicle is a magnitude harder to learn than past machinery is that a creature evolved to survive by feel- and also sense of smell- now must imagine what approaching death feels like. Whole bicycle contingent, tell us how much safer you’d feel with power steering. Autonomous bikes aren’t the Wave of the Future either, are they?

    (Computer assisted design is exhausting, because you have to think into existence a shape humans were designed to create with a chisel or a pottery wheel. Only design tool that sucks worse than a keyboard is a touch screen.)

    Idea that an operator can learn to think a train on an unfamiliar track from 80 mph to 30 with the training these guys got still gets only the bronze. Olympic gold is whoever lost the speed rules for those red and white freight diesels past the Capitol dome. Driving and work rules, experience counts. No matter how fresh the new gravel looks.

    But better think, Carl. Maybe reason for scenic restoration is that somebody with a hacksaw liberated the engineers (not the train-driving ones) and the legal team from the motel radiator. One repeat and spontaneous initiative to widen I-5 across those tracks will put Tim Eyman in Tacoma’s history museum.


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