Skip to main content

A trip to the moon for today’s generation of railroaders

March 2017

»Several of the Norfolk Southern employees who have led the company’s efforts to develop and deploy positive train control safety technology discuss the work and complexities involved in this video.

PTC: A merger of technology and human ingenuity at NS and across the industry

Nobody has left the confines of gravity, but the rail industry’s pioneering work to develop and deploy the safety technology known as positive train control shares similarities with the challenges faced by the U.S. in sending humans to the moon.

That’s the view of Norfolk Southern employees on the front lines of efforts to roll out a technology that CEO Jim Squires says could be a building block for the railroad of tomorrow. The PTC technology, which pairs onboard locomotive equipment with track wayside communications and signals infrastructure, is designed to stop a train to prevent certain accidents on rail lines where PTC is required.

“In a lot of ways it kind of replicates when the U.S. tried to go to the moon back in the 1960s,” said David Becker, chief engineer design and construction, who calls PTC one of the most complex projects he’s worked on during a 30-year NS career. “We had a goal we knew we needed to reach, but we didn’t yet have all the technology that was needed, nor did we have the internal systems all in place.”

Tommy Phillips, chief engineer communications and signals, views PTC as the rail industry’s largest magnitude project of this generation – and railroaders have risen to the task. “It has been a challenge since day one,” he said, “and it’s been a pleasant surprise to see how the people engaged in the work have joined forces, how they’ve linked together, and how they’ve made a concerted effort to install PTC.”

Leveraging a federal mandate

“It’s a huge investment. Let’s do it right, and let’s make the best of it.”

-- CEO Jim Squires

In 2008, Congress mandated that the industry install PTC on rail lines used by passenger trains or that transport tank cars moving poison- or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials. NS is equipping approximately 8,000 route miles, or nearly half of its system network, with infrastructure needed to run PTC-equipped trains.

NS expects to invest more than $1.8 billion in the effort. That includes the cost of outfitting locomotives with PTC equipment that acts as the “brain” of the system when paired with wayside signal and switch information. Industrywide, the price tag of developing and deploying PTC is estimated at over $10 billion.

“PTC is really complicated,” said Lisa Wilson, manager advanced train control regulatory compliance and training. “It is taking a lot of technology and putting it on top of the way we railroad now. We use radios, we use towers, we use different servers, we use all kinds of software within all these devices to talk PTC and make sure the system works. There’s been a tremendous amount of work both at NS and through the industry together to make sure the system is going to do what it’s supposed to do. There is an incredible amount of safety engineering required to build the right system and build the system right.”

PTC came to the industry as an unfunded congressional mandate. However, Squires told employees at a December "town hall" meeting that the industry must make the best of its investments. That involves exploring opportunities to leverage the technology beyond safety to improve operating efficiencies and grow revenue. With its communication capabilities, PTC holds potential for use in supply-chain logistics to enhance customer service, he said.

“It’s a huge investment,” Squires said. “It will change fundamentally, in some areas, the way in which we operate. Let’s do it right, and let’s make the best of it.”

Steady progress to meet operating goals

Tom Schnautz PTC
“It’s slow and steady that wins the race with a marathon like PTC. It’s complex, there’s a lot of work involved, and we’re having success.”

-- Tom Schnautz, assistant vice president mechanical

NS is on track to meet federal requirements that railroads have PTC infrastructure installed by 2018 and fully operable by 2020. On the PTC “trip to the moon,” however, the industry still faces unchartered destinations for places like Chicago, with its more than 1,000 daily train starts and over a dozen railroads running operations.

Particularly in areas like Chicago, PTC is made more complex because of federal requirements that the industry achieve fully interoperable PTC operations. That means locomotives owned by the other Class I railroads, such as Union Pacific and BNSF, must be able to operate seamlessly over property boundaries through safe and secure handling of all PTC messages from the host railroad.

“Every railroad operates in a slightly different fashion, and we have to ensure that our equipment operates on their roads and theirs operates on ours,” said David Norwood, advanced train control program manager.

By the end of 2016, NS transportation crews were operating PTC-equipped trains in revenue service demonstration runs across 1,020 route miles of the company’s PTC-required track. During 2017, NS will add more route miles every month for revenue service demonstration runs on PTC-required territory.

“That means finalizing all the PTC equipment on each line segment, finishing the training of employees affected on that line segment, ensuring the communications are reliable, validating the operation of PTC on those miles, and then starting to run,” said Tom Schnautz, assistant vice president mechanical, who oversees the PTC effort. “It’s slow and steady that wins the race with a marathon like PTC. It’s complex, there’s a lot of work involved, and we’re having success.”

Making a safe railroad even safer

“There are folks from all over the railroad coming together to make this work. We’re using data and technology to make a safe railroad safer.”

-- Lisa Wilson, manager advanced train control regulatory compliance and training

PTC is intended to prevent accidents that involve train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, a train movement through an improperly aligned switch, or unauthorized incursions by trains onto track where maintenance work is occurring. The system is designed to stop the train if the human operator fails to take appropriate action.

“It’s really about providing an added layer of safety," Schnautz said.

NS is installing a robust communications system to relay electronic messages between trains, wayside signals, and back-office servers. The system includes more than 3,400 wayside signal interface units, a radio tower at each signal, and more than 400 base station radios. NS locomotive shops across the system are equipping around 2,900 locomotives with technology that features onboard computers and PTC displays, event recorders, and radios. Installing PTC equipment on each locomotive takes about 108 employee-hours of work.

NS expects to train about 21,000 employees on using or operating safely around PTC technology, including train crews, train dispatchers, communications and signals specialists, track maintenance-of-way gangs, and mechanical craft workers. Train crews and other craft employees use locomotive cab simulators at NS’ training center in McDonough, Ga., to learn PTC. In addition, NS maintains simulators on every division and operates five mobile simulators-classrooms to provide field training for locomotive engineers on PTC and other operating skills, said Daniel Bostek, manager train operating practices.

 “There are folks from all over the railroad coming together to make this work,” Wilson said. “We’re using data and technology to make a safe railroad safer.”