Sounder South at Safeco Field. Credit: Andy Tucker

Sound Transit will implement positive train control (PTC) on all Sounder trips by the end of 2018, according to Sound Transit Director of Systems Engineering Peter Brown.

In a presentation to the Sound Transit board on Thursday, Brown summarized the progress of PTC implementation. In 2008, the federal government mandated that all commuter rail systems implement PTC on all trips by 2020, and show progress on implementation by the end of 2018. Sound Transit expects to beat the deadline by two years.

PTC is an automated safety system that can apply a train’s brakes during emergencies when an engineer has failed to do so. PTC can prevent dangerous events like the fatal Cascades derailment in DuPont at the end of 2017.

Sound Transit had some PTC systems installed on certain Sounder runs as early as 2016, but capital projects in Pierce County, including the Tacoma trestle and Point Defiance Bypass, delayed full implementation.

According to Brown, Sound Transit is currently commissioning PTC on new Bombardier cars that were delivered in 2018; those cars will enter revenue service in August. Systems testing and debugging is currently underway with older vehicles. Sound Transit is also working with WSDOT and Amtrak to make all passenger vehicles that run on the BNSF track interoperable with the PTC system.

“When the trains are configured and ready to go, the engineer goes through an initialization process which essentially establishes communications between the vehicle and the dispatching office. We measure the success with which that occurs… we’re consistently in the 90 percent range, for a few months now,” said Brown. “We are working to get that to as close as 100 percent as we can.”

Brown said that, when errors do occur, they are due to faulty GPS antennas or a bug in the PTC software. The antennas were shipped defective. The system’s contractor, Wabtec, will replace the antennas at their own expense. The software error, which causes a false positive and triggers braking, is not unique to Sound Transit; all other railroads that use Wabtec PTC also have the problem. Wabtec will release a new build of PTC that will address the error in early August.

Brown expects that performance will continue to improve as Sound Transit gains experience operating the equipment, and other operators finish their own implementation processes.

“PTC is a complex system in the early stages of deployment, and we expect reliability will improve with time,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, WSDOT announced this week that they are targeting completion of the PTC work — and therefore a return of Cascades trains to the Point Defiance Bypass — this fall, a little ahead of the Federal deadline. System tests along the bypass, and crew training, are underway this summer.

22 Replies to “Sound Transit to use PTC on all Sounder trips by December”

  1. I suppose false positive braking is precipitous rather than gradual? Not something I’d want to know could happen at any time for no reason and passengers would be lurching in their seats.

    1. Standees or those on the way downstairs to the doors to get off at the next station are worse off.

  2. “…… we’re consistently in the 90 percent range, for a few months now,” said Brown. “We are working to get that to as close as 100 percent as we can”

    Brown said that, when errors do occur, they are due to faulty GPS antennas or a bug in the PTC software. The antennas were shipped defective. The system’s contractor, Wabtec, will replace the antennas at their own expense. The software error, which causes a false positive and triggers braking, is not unique to Sound Transit; all other railroads that use Wabtec PTC also have the problem. Wabtec will release a new build of PTC that will address the error in early August.

    Brown expects that performance will continue to improve as Sound Transit gains experience operating the equipment, and other operators finish their own implementation processes.

    ‘PTC is a complex system in the early stages of deployment, and we expect reliability will improve with time,’ Brown said.”

    Thank you, Mr. Brown, for making my own next points for me. That no mechanical system always works, and has to be constantly watched, and malfunction fixed ‘way past ASAP to flat out STAT.

    Or anybody be allowed on the first step of the ladder to the cab without that knowledge, and by conditioned reflex know exactly what to do what to do about every possible malfunction without consultation.

    Also it does not mean that a stretch of track that can barely handle forty miles an hour can be put to eighty, across road intersections already in place. Or in the United States of America, any railroad have grade-crossings at all.

    Or that a curve known to be dangerous by every pertinent entity in the State be left uncorrected for budgetary reasons. Or that an engineer has to read signals wayside, rather than in the cab.

    Or take the controls so miserably trained he doesn’t know when to look for the signs in broad daylight. Or through both equipment and instinct know exactly where his train is every foot of the route at Hell’s blackest midnight.

    Or…. that any automobile be expected to replace a human driver’s skill with a mechanism, in mixed traffic at same posted speed as regular fraffic, and without the benefit of rails to eliminate lateral deviations.

    Before he could sign his books “Mark Twain”, Samuel Clements apprenticed as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot. At a time when the light-bulb was science fiction, let alone any night navigation light that was not on fire.

    Allowing for 19th century custom of gilded exaggeration, recommend “Life on the Mississippi.” Will make your passengers’ live on both rail and pavement last a lot longer.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Speak, retired operator! I, for one, won’t be setting foot on that 79 mph train for at least a year after it opens.

      By then, hopefully every train will have at least one pilot with a full year experience on the route, and always have a co-pilot…. by state law as soon as we get lucky not having another multi-fatality derailment in the first year.

      If anyone gets clobbered by the 79 mph train, then send it back to the coastal route until grade-separation can be installed. How many grade separations would be required? How much would they cost?

      1. When this was first proposed I mentioned the possibility of high-speed T-bones caused by backups on the adjacent bridges and got roundly booed here on STB. Thanks for bringing it up again.

      2. Three (Bridgeport, 41st Division, and Barksdale), and perhaps $60 million? That’s a pure guess, but the freeway is close enough to them that the adjacent bridges over the freeway would need to be replaced to match the elevation of the overpass above the railway.

        There’s also a very minor road between the two sides of the Fort, Pendleton Avenue, which can still have gates because it can’t get backed up by freeway jams.

      3. How much would completely eliminating all grade separations on every railroad with top speed more than thirty cost? Let’s try it and see. If it’s ‘way out of line: put the roads back across the tracks again.

        Because my own guess is that the more traffic they carry, the less we’ll want them in the way of our trains. Likewise, the less they carry, the less anybody will miss them- and their maintenance cost.

        Any source I don’t know, I take for what it’s worth, but this one seems to fit the facts on BN 501.

        http://cs.trains.com/mrr/f/13/t/164509.aspx

        Does anybody know where Brian Bundridge is? Wish he’d weight in here- though can see why he wouldn’t, at least before the official accident report comes in.

        My first question would be: Why no cab signals, or overspeed warning? But even without them, how could any engineer know there was a well-known dangerous curve in the track- but not have it internalized backward exactly where it was.

        And were he was in relation to it? In the worst of our coach-operator training- worth another posting- maybe since my own was the best, this was first thing, and repeatedly pointed out on any new run.

        My worst absolute no about “autonomous driving” with human hands on the controls. Some drivers still feel same way about powers steering and for same reason:

        Life’s life and death skills, we learn through feel, sound, and smell. Developed by nature to favor creatures who didn’t have to see the leopard in the dark to screech and run from it. Swinging from tree branches they can’t see.

        Why some call them “monkey skills”.

        If you have to see danger to sense it, your and anybody in your way are both dead. It’s your whole system of senses that needs to hit brakes and/or turn the wheel literally without thinking.

        Backup? Fine. Just don’t make it be the human!

        Mark Dublin

      4. Based on the safety record of I-5, in which 3 people killed is a good weekend, do you have any similar plans for driving the parallel route?

      5. “Does anybody know where Brian Bundridge is? Wish he’d weight in here- though can see why he wouldn’t, at least before the official accident report comes in.”

        Mark,
        You of all people should know that an active employee in an organization is restricted in what they can say in public so even hinting something well… is very delicate.

        After all, look what happened to Matt Johnson when he went to the dark side.

  3. And that’s “Clemens” and “passengers’ LIVES! Off duty for a month, Operator Dublin!

    MD

  4. Has anybody else given a thought to the parallels (and differences) between PTC and free-range autonomy for cars? If they can’t get near-100% accuracy for a system in which a VERY few vehicles (a whole train is logically one vehicle) operating on guideways, how do they expect to achieve reliable safety in autonomy?

    Of course, the problem may just be that the programmers at Wabtec are gobsmackingly bad.

    1. You have a dozen of the biggest companies in the world spending billions racing to be the first to develop AV tech, for which the payoff will be massive (or at least people believe so). How many companies are developing PTC? Wabtec isn’t even fortune 500. Whats the potential payoff? HSR needs to operate with a government subsidy, freight rail companies don’t need it. The business cases are completely different. And while I’m sure Wabtec engineers are competent, where do you think the world’s best AV minds are going, Google or Wabtec?

  5. Thanks for nailing me on that one, Jim. Certainly should not have used his name in a whole comment about a particular accident. Or any accident at all.

    What I was really after was the “feel” of a rail vehicle at the instant the final decision was mine. Forty minutes at the controller of a five-section streetcar though Gothenburg at 11AM …unexpected professional courtesy, but one or two insights about streetcars and crowds.

    Feeling extremely grateful for not killing anybody- which is strangely hard to do with a population that literally learns train avoidance in their baby carriage, vibration, bell, and mother slowing down to let the train go by without looking at it.

    Other than that- never even drove the Benson line. Buses different universe.
    Whole meaning behind my remarks: “What do my hands have to do, first, next, and everything else? And what would I have to teach somebody else based on the experience?

    From DSTT ops, really do believe that hands-on operator training was as willfully neglected as it is critical to human life and inhuman budgeting.

    With the Tunnel, worst defect was complete silence on team-work. Whose design and intent could have saved many times as much as its immediate and complete discard lost us.

    Not looking to blame. Just to know, and pass along, enough that if I’d been at the controls of 501….I’d have enough drilled into me I couldn’t get it wrong after ten year’s reflex training to do exactly the wrong thing.

    One delicate matter though: I really like Matt Johnson. So I wonder if his disappearance was to escape from the green-tinted lady official, or to manage a department for her?

    Mark

    1. I trust Matt is doing well. He was last time I saw him. There’s an inevitable tension between transit advocates who want to work in the transit industry. Some people want to go into the industry because they enjoy it, and to hopefully improve it from inside. But the tradeoff is they have to curtail what they say. I’m immune from that because I’ve never worked in the transit industry and don’t expect to, so I just say what I want. But others don’t have that choice. It also affects politicians. Rob Johnson is probably to saying everything he wants because it would impact his effectiveness negotiating policy with his colleagues and getting angry letters from his constituents. Well, that may not be so true any more in an era of presidential tweets. Or, the presidential tweets may be the counterexample (not exception) that proves the rule.

      1. Thanks for the word on Matt. Will look up where Matt is. Really would like to talk with him. Incidentally- what was it that Dorothy did to the witch that made her melt?

        Will also do same thing to anybody who even writes anything mean to Rob Johnson. But Richard Nixon personally proved that a thin skin is fatal disease in politics. He would’ve done ok as head of the Chamber of Commerce in his town in California.

        Or, considering his successors, would’ve been a pretty decent President if he’d early on learned that for politics, the more people are furious with you, the more you’re probably getting done.

        Franklin Roosevelt bragged that he welcomed the hatred of the rich. So did Huey Long. Really don’t think electee with first claim on the bathroom at 1600 Pennsylvania cares who hates him. Who’s not among the rich in Russia.

        Wish he was all the usual villainies: Insane, arrogant, petulant and the rest. We’ve got a reality show creator! Incidentally- who ever started calling them that?

        Tweets are perfect communication technique for world’s best psi-war campaign in history. One perfectly calculated outrage after another, usually changing and completely contradictory by the hour.

        And now that he’s actually destroyed our civil service by firing or just grossing everybody competent our of their jobs, us revolutionaries will have to become the Establishment. Talk about playing against character! This is where Rob and Matt come in.

        For the survival of our country and everything with passengers on top of wheels, we need some kind of Constitutional amendment to let them Keep and Bear their presence on Earth.

        Mark

  6. I am here, lurking around.

    In short, PTC is working on all of Sounder, except the new cab cars. Those will happen relatively quickly.

    As for the BNSF PTC side of things, we’ve been using it consistently for years. Yes, it has its teething issues, trains (including Sounder) sometimes (rarely nowadays) go into a penalty brake application when an anomaly occurs and each instance only takes a few minutes to resolve and get back underway.

    I personally love it, it is nice to have a “third” pair of eyes but still allows me to run the train as I see fit.

    1. Brian, I’ve always had to cut the crap about railroading. Loved them since being age five in Chicago in 1950. These things really existed, though really on their last wheels. Never got over it.

      A lot of what I say about streetcar suburbs and regional rail looks like this. Even like the color better than blue and white. And “Electroliner” sounds like a better ride than “LINK”. Which I think was served for breakfast in the restaurant segment.

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/39100949651/in/dateposted-public/

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/39101069271/in/dateposted-public/

      https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/39070395322/in/dateposted-public/

      But you’ve got a skill I really covet. I think we think same about anything that beeps and talks like a space alien between us and our machines. Good they’ve given you something that’ll still let you run the train.

      Tell me: Am I anywhere near close about the “Hands On?”

      Mark

    1. There was a rather silly attempt to make PTC rely on GPS, but basically that didn’t work so now it’s antennas all over the place. The Great Northern Tunnel has even more antennas than the outdoor areas.

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