Testimony before the
Subcommittee on Railroads

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Subcommittee on Technology
Committee on Science, House of Representatives
Regarding Automatic Train Control
March 27, 1996


Good afternoon. I appreciate the opportunity to represent the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) before your Subcommittees on the subject of high technology train control devices and their role in railroad safety.

The Safety Board has advocated high technology train control devices that can provide positive train separation for over two decades. The urgency of this issue has been highlighted over and over in Safety Board railroad accident investigations since 1969. The train accidents that took place in Sugar Valley, Georgia; Corona, California; Knox, Indiana; Ledger, Montana; Kelso, Washington; and Thedford, Nebraska, could have all been prevented if a fully developed positive train separation (PTS) system had been in place. And now, after the tragic accidents that have occurred in the last two months, we must add New Jersey Transit in Secaucus, New Jersey, and the MARC Train in Silver Spring, Maryland to the list of accidents that could have been prevented if a fully developed positive train separation control system had been in place.

The Safety Board considers positive train separation systems that act as a safety net for human performance failures as vital to the long term safe operation of trains. The problem of human performance errors in train operations has existed since the beginning of railroading. This problem has repeatedly been addressed over the decades using different types of technology to control different elements of the human performance problem. For example, back in 1919, a test of a system that could automatically stop a train in violation of a signal was tested on the Buffalo, Rochester, and Pittsburgh Railway. That same system was commercially applied to the Chicago and North Western Railway in 1923. Many more applications of the positive train stop technology were applied throughout the railroad industry. Most of these systems, however, have been removed from our nation's railroad systems because they were considered to be too expensive to maintain on a rail system primarily interested in moving freight.

Our frustration over the lack of progress on positive train separation systems prompted us to include this issue on our initial list of Most Wanted Transportation Safety Improvements. The Safety Board believes that new technology in the form of an advanced electronic system can reduce the severity of human performance train operations accidents by overriding the train operator's actions to prevent train collisions and overspeed derailments.

About 80 percent of the railroad accidents the Safety Board has investigated over the past 10 years are the result of human error. Train crewmembers are continuously trained, but training, however, is not a guarantee that an individual will take the correct action. Highly trained people still have accidents. PTS control systems provide a back-up to the engineer that ensures that a train is properly controlled.

The Safety Board's objective in recommending PTS is to provide an automatic means of supporting the actions of the train crew. A PTS control system will monitor the engineer's performance as he or she approaches the limits of his or her authority or a restricting signal. If the engineer fails to react by not braking the train, the control system will take over, automatically applying the brakes and stopping the train.

The Safety Board first made recommendations addressing railroad collision avoidance after a fatal head-on collision in Darien, Connecticut, between two Penn Central commuter trains. The accident occurred on August 20, 1969. Four persons were killed, and about 43 were injured.

As a result of the Darien accident, the Safety Board recommended that:
The Federal Railroad Administration, if it receives additional statutory authority under legislation now in progress, study the feasibility of requiring a form of automatic train control at points where passenger trains are required to meet other trains. (R-70-20)

In response to Safety Recommendation R-70-20, the FRA funded a special study at the Department of Transportation's Systems Center. The results indicated that the best system would appear to be a hybrid, composed of both present and proposed levels of mechanical control. However, because of the extremely high estimated costs and extensive installation, it did not appear feasible at that time. On August 20, 1975, the recommendation was classified "Closed--Acceptable Action."

After its investigation of a May 1986 rear-end train collision at Brighton, Massachusetts, the Safety Board issued Safety Recommendation R-87-16 to the FRA:

Promulgate Federal standards to require the installation and operation of a train control system on main line tracks that will provide for positive separation of all trains.

Currently, the recommendation is classified "Open--Acceptable Response." Incidently, this recommendation is the basis for including Positive Train Separation on the Safety Board's Most Wanted list.

Additional accidents that were related to PTS occurred in Chicago, Illinois, on October 30, 1972; New York, New York, on January 2, 1975; Meeker, Louisiana, May 30, 1975; and Seabrook, Maryland, on June 9, 1978. Each investigation resulted in recommending that the railroads involved provide automatic train control to back up the engineer in the event of a failure to properly react. Additional recommendations on automatic train control were made as a result of accidents in Boston, Massachusetts, on November 12, 1987; in Sugar Valley, Georgia, on August 9, 1990; Ledger, Montana, on August 30, 1991, and most recently in Kelso, Washington, on November 11, 1993.

After its investigation of the derailment of two Norfolk Southern freight trains at Sugar Valley, Georgia, the Safety Board issued Safety Recommendation R-91-25 to the FRA:

In conjunction with the Association of American Railroads and the Railway Progress Institute, expand the effort now being made to develop and install advanced train control systems for the purpose of positive train separation.

Currently, the recommendation is classified "Open--Acceptable Response." The Safety Board believes that the FRA's train control report to Congress and the pilot test by the Burlington Northern and the Union Pacific, which will be discussed later, deserve recognition. Based on their efforts, the Safety Board classified Safety Recommendation R-91-25 "Closed--Acceptable Action."

On July 29, 1993, as a result of the Ledger, Montana, accident investigation, the Safety Board issued Safety Recommendation R-93-12 to the FRA:
In conjunction with the Association of American Railroads and the Railway Progress Institute, establish a firm timetable that includes at a minimum, dates for final development of required advanced train control system hardware, dates for an implementation of a fully developed advanced train control system, and a commitment to a date for having the advanced train control system ready for installation on the general railroad system.


The recommendation was classified "Open--Acceptable Response" after the FRA took a proactive position with the railroad industry by seeking final system definition, development migration path, and a timetable by the end of 1994.

The Ledger, Montana, recommendation resulted from years of frustration with the response of the industry to the Safety Board's prior recommendations. The Safety Board acknowledged the research and testing that has been conducted on PTS hardware, but it was the Safety Board's view that development work on a practical PTS control system was not progressing as quickly as it should. Member railroads of the Association of American Railroads (AAR) had been testing components of an advanced train control system for years. The AAR, however, has yet to demonstrate a fully implemented system that provides PTS.

Until fall 1992, there were two projects on advanced train control. The BN had a working PTS control system that was called ARES (advanced railroad electronics system). The AAR had a program to develop a land-based transponder PTS control system known as advanced train control system or ATCS.

The BN's ARES system was based on satellite-based communications. Train locations were determined by using the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) network. The BN demonstrated ARES on a 300-mile loop of track on the Iron Range in Minnesota. The BN equipped its locomotives with ARES equipment and used the system to control trains. ARES had the ability to locate trains with respect to the track profile. An onboard computer used the signals to calculate the specific location of the train. The location was transmitted by the railroad's voice (VHF) radio system to a central office. The location of trains could be determined to an accuracy of about 150 feet. If an engineer failed to slow for a signal, ARES first warned him of the upcoming signal. If he still did not take action, ARES took over and stopped the train.

ARES made a lasting impression on many in the railroad industry. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) attempted to obtain funding so that ARES could be installed on that portion of the BN on which Amtrak passenger trains operate. Amtrak also wanted ARES installed on its own tracks between Porter, Indiana, and Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was a setback in the progress toward prevention of train collisions when the BN decided to abandon the advanced, field-tested, and field-demonstrated technology of ARES in late 1992.

The AAR had sponsored ATCS since the early 1980s. The ATCS approach was very similar to the ARES approach regarding wayside, locomotive, and dispatcher control. The ATCS method, however, used land-based transponders to determine train location rather than signals from NAVSTAR global positioning satellites.

In December 1993, the Safety Board discussed PTS in detail during its meeting about the Gary, Indiana, accident. The Board expressed concern about the lack of progress in developing a PTS control system. Shortly after, however, the FRA Administrator began addressing the subject in round-table discussions with industry, and the program began to move forward.

These round-table discussions resulted from the Safety Board's recommendations and the Railroad Safety Act of 1992. The FRA was directed by Congress to investigate the status of ATCS and review the potential for ATCS to provide PTS that would be compatible nationwide.

Talks with the AAR and railroad industry representatives resulted in some basic decisions. The participants in the meeting identified PTS and speed control as essential safety elements in an advanced train control system. PTS would prevent collisions, and speed control would automatically ensure compliance with speed restrictions for track geometry or temporary slow orders.

Two years ago, the BN and the UP announced their intention to establish a positive train control (PTC) demonstration project on 750 miles of UP and BN track in the northwestern United States. The system will contain both PTS and speed control features. Some sections of track will use satellite-based communications and global positioning satellites to locate and record train positions. Other sections of track will be controlled using ground-based transponders and communications.

Specifications for the BN/UP PTC system were developed and issued for bid. The PTC test bed should provide answers to many of the questions about advanced train control systems and will better define the parameters associated with the ATCS program. Meanwhile, the AAR's core ATCS program is also moving forward. Additional testing of components is being conducted by other AAR member railroads.

On July 13, 1994, the FRA released Railroad Communications and Train Control. The report discusses PTC in detail. The FRA suggests using risk assessment to determine which rail corridors could benefit the most from PTC. It has committed to monitoring and providing technical support for the PTC test bed in the northwest United States. It has also indicated that it will support Amtrak's activities on the northeast corridor to upgrade signal systems for 150-mph operation and will promote and develop PTC technologies as an element of high speed rail technologies.

The Safety Board recognizes the efforts of the FRA, the AAR, and the railroad industry in developing the report, and the Board supports its essence. However, the Board remains concerned about the future of PTS in the United States.

The Safety Board has long believed that PTS has advantages beyond safety that should be considered. Increase in rail line efficiency and utilization, savings in fuel use, reduced wear and tear on equipment through train pacing, and maintenance savings from eliminating pole lines and outdated signal equipment are a few of the business benefits.

The Manager for Train Control Technology for the AAR stated in his presentation on advanced train control systems to the International Association of Railway Operating Officers in 1993 that "rarely has a technology offered as broad a range of benefits to the railroad industry."

In the report to Congress entitled Railroad Communications and Train Control, the cost of a universal PTC system for the nation's railroads is estimated at between $859 million and $1.1 billion; however, safety is named as the only quantifiable benefit of PTC. The FRA alludes to the existence of business benefits from PTC but includes safety savings of only $34.5 million per year. Clearly the benefits of a PTS control system go well beyond safety, but if safety remains the only identified benefit, PTS control systems will never be economically justified.

The safety savings of $34.5 million per year seem vastly understated in view of the large amounts recently awarded to victims of transportation accidents in litigation suits. Any single serious passenger train accident involving fatalities and/or serious injuries would probably quickly exceed the $34.5 million per year figure.

The FRA issued a press release with its report to Congress that stated:

To further advance positive train control, FRA, over the next 4 years, will identify high risk rail corridors on which PTC installation could be justifiable based on cost/benefit analysis. Upon a favorable finding, FRA would require installation on specific high risk corridors.

The Safety Board is concerned that without a full assessment of all of the benefits of PTS, including a more reasonable estimate of the true safety savings (including those resulting from preventing litigation), there may never be a favorable finding by the FRA.

The Safety Board believes that the business benefits associated with PTS are real and need to be included in the cost benefit analysis. If safety is the only criterion for justifying PTS, then the growth of PTS will be very slow. Lack of understanding of the business benefits of PTS may be used as an excuse to label PTS control systems as too costly. The Federal Government and the railroad industry must know the true benefits of PTS control systems before they can make the proper decision regarding its application.

In the Kelso, Washington report, the Safety Board reiterated Safety Recommendations R-87-16 and R-93-12, made to the Federal Railroad Administration on May 19, 1987 and July 29, 1993, respectively. These recommendations form the foundation of the Safety Board's effort to achieve Federal standards that will require the installation and operation of a train control system on main line tracks that will provide for positive separation of all trains. These recommendations also call for the establishment of a firm timetable that includes at a minimum, dates for implementation of a fully developed advanced train control system, and commitment to a date for having the advanced train control system ready for installation on the general railroad system. These recommendations are classified "Open--Acceptable Response," based primarily on FRA's July 1994 report to Congress entitled Railroad Communications and Train Control.

The Safety Board also made new positive train separation recommendations to the FRA and the AAR in the Kelso, Washington report. AAR's initial response stated that it was not possible to determine any business benefit from the PTS test project being conducted in the Pacific Northwest. The AAR went on to say that:

the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) agrees that railroads are "justified in insisting that the PTS debate include a clear focus on safety costs and benefits." With the proper focus on safety benefits, the Report to Congress correctly evaluated the potential benefits of PTS and concluded that it cannot be economically justified at this time.

The Federal Railroad Administration was also asked to evaluate the business benefits of PTS in Safety Recommendation R-94-14.

The Federal Railroad Administration responded to this recommendation that evaluation of the nonsafety business benefits associated with the UP/BN pilot project will not be feasible. The FRA went on to support the AAR and the railroad's position that business benefits should not be assessed. They also conclude that it is not government's role to "substitute our judgment for the judgment of senior railroad managers regarding matters within their special expertise and responsibilities as corporate officers."

There is one more concern that I would like to discuss, and that is the issue of railroad radio spectrum. Railroad radio communication and advanced train control systems rely on radio frequencies. As you are aware, the FCC is considering consolidating (*or refarming) the radio frequencies used by the railroads with those of other radio users. This poses a threat to safety because the railroads would no longer have exclusive access to radio frequencies. Refarming of radio frequencies will allow outside users to use radio frequencies adjacent to railroad operations and in some cases share frequencies with railroad operations. The Safety Board is concerned that the refarming of frequencies may cause interference with and otherwise negatively impact the reliability and safety of rail communications which are vital for safe train operations.

The Safety Board is also concerned that the auctioning of frequencies not currently in use by the railroads may cause long-term problems. Auctioning has the potential to deny the railroads' access to railroad frequencies needed for transportation safety, and we should proceed in this area with care.

The Safety Board continues to be extremely interested in PTS control system technology, development, and installation. The Board is pleased that the FRA has issued its report Railroad Communications and Train Control. The Safety Board wants the FRA to continue serious involvement in PTS to ensure that railroads begin installing it on their main lines.

The need for PTS ultimately goes beyond the economic benefits of accident avoidance. It is impossible to fully assess the impact of fatalities, serious injury, property damage, environmental damage, or damages awarded through litigation on railroad employees, railroad passengers, or members of the general public. As railroad traffic increases, the risk of major accidents involving passenger trains and freight trains also increases. Public sentiment demands that the railroads be safe. The risk of injuring or killing train crewmembers and passengers or members of the general public, as well as the risk of environmental damage caused by hazardous material spills, is unacceptable to the public. Using PTS control systems is one way that the railroads can act to prevent a great number of human performance or human error accidents.

The NTSB hopes that the recent rash of tragic accidents will spur the Federal Railroad Administration and the industry to make a firm commitment to positive train separation and establish a firm timetable for its implementation. The Safety Board was pleased to see in the Federal Railroad Administration's February 20, 1996 Emergency Order that "... the most effective preventative measure is a highly effective train control system," especially automatic systems. We hope that these words can be translated into action.

That concludes my prepared statement, and I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

Jim Hall's Speeches