Beyond Positive Train Control: Using New and Emerging Technologies to Improve Rail Safety


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​​​WASHINGTON (Nov. 1, 2023) – The National Transportation Safety Board is calling on the Federal Railroad Administration​ to formulate a plan to incorporate promising new technology into the existing system that prevents certain train collisions.

In a report (URL) released Wednesday, the NTSB identified situations where new and emerging technologies can improve the nation’s existing positive train control, or PTC, system and benefit rail safety. 

The NTSB has long advocated for the implementation of PTC. Positive train control is a GPS-based system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position. PTC is required on tracks with regularly scheduled intercity or commuter passenger rail service and Class I railroad main lines carrying poison- or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials.

“Implementation of positive train control across our nation’s rail system is undoubtedly a safety win — one the NTSB supported for over five decades,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “And yet, we haven’t achieved zero deaths on our railroads, which means there’s more we can and must do to strengthen safety.”    

​(NTSB graphic based on an illustration from the Association of American Railroads.)

In the report, NTSB Investigators identified the following safety issues with existing PTC systems:

  • ​Insufficient information about train location during restricted-speed operations
  • Obsolete exceptions to PTC use in terminal environments
  • Overreliance on administrative controls to prevent unsafe use of switching mode on main tracks
  • Unsafe train incursions into established working limits

Additionally, the NTSB urged FRA to complete and publish the results of current research into new PTC technology and develop a plan to implement any promising technologies. The NTSB also recommended that FRA require railroads to adopt engineering controls that automatically return PTC to the active mode following switching operations and require railroads adopt engineering controls that eliminate the risk of miscommunication between dispatchers and roadway workers in charge regarding established working limits and PTC protection. The report also recommended FRA work with railroads to remove terminal exceptions granted under federal regulations by using new technology.

“This report outlines concrete steps to save lives because part of our mission is to ensure regulators continually raise the bar on safety, and that includes evaluating the lifesaving potential of new and emerging technologies.”

The railroad investigative report which includes the findings, and safety recommendations, is available online.

The public docket for the investigation is available online.

To report an incident/accident or if you are a public safety agency, please call 1-844-373-9922 or 202-314-6290 to speak to a Watch Officer at the NTSB Response Operations Center (ROC) in Washington, DC (24/7).