Wednesday, February 28, 2018

GAO: More than half of commuter railroads at risk of missing PTC deadline

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A train crosses York St. at 40th Ave. in Denver. A train crosses York St. at 40th Ave. in Denver. Regional Transportation District of Denver

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found as many as two-thirds of commuter railroads required to install positive train control (PTC) by the end of the year have not allocated enough time to accomplish implementation or qualify for an extension.


GAO was asked to review commuter railroads' PTC implementation and, among other objectives, the report discusses commuter railroads that may not be positioned to meet the PTC deadline or qualify for an extension, and factors affecting their progress and the extent to which the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) management and oversight approach has helped ensure that commuter railroads meet the deadline or qualify for an extension.

GAO said it analyzed commuter railroads' most recently available quarterly progress reports and collected information on planned implementation schedules, interviewed 19 commuter railroads, which included 14 that FRA identified as at-risk and five others further ahead with implementation, and interviewed FRA officials.

GAO's summary of the analysis says, "...of commuter railroads' PTC scheduled milestones for two key activities necessary to meet the 2018 deadline or qualify for an RSD-based extension (one of the statutory options) found that as many as two-thirds of the 29 commuter railroads may not have allocated sufficient time to complete these milestones. Specifically, in comparing the commuter railroads' schedules to FRA's estimates of the time required to complete these milestones and the experiences of railroads that have already completed them, GAO's analysis found that from 7 to 19 commuter railroads may not complete the milestones before the 2018 implementation deadline or qualify for an RSD-based extension."

The report notes that FRA estimates that field testing (one of the milestones) takes at least one year, but GAO found that 14 commuter railroads plan to start this testing less than a year before the 2018 deadline, increasing the potential risk that this milestone will not be completed.

The report states that the number of commuter railroads at risk of not meeting the deadline or qualifying for an extension could increase or decrease in the coming year based on the FRA's authority to establish alternative criteria for an extension not based on RSD and several other factors can affect commuter railroads' planned and future progress.

The GAO report also says that while FRA's PTC management and oversight includes monitoring commuter railroads' progress, reviewing documentation and sharing information with them, the agency has not systematically communicated information or used a risk-based approach to help these railroads prepare for the 2018 deadline or qualify for an extension.

"GAO found that FRA has primarily used informal assistance, meetings with individual railroads and participation in industry-convened groups to share information with commuter railroads and, in some cases, the information conveyed has been inconsistent according to industry representatives. Some commuter railroads also told GAO that clarification about the agency's planned process for reviewing and approving extension requests would be helpful," says the report summary.

GAO recommended that FRA identify and adopt a method for systematically communicating information to railroads and use a risk-based approach to prioritize its resources and workload. It notes that the U.S. Department Transportation concurred with the recommendations.

The report was released a day before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is scheduled to hold a hearing on the implementation of PTC, where Susan Fleming, director of Physical Infrastructure for the GAO, is scheduled to testify.