In 2008, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) that required all commuter and freight railroads to implement PTC. In October 2015, the statutory deadline for PTC installation was extended to the end of 2018, with further extensions available up to the end of 2020 (if certain milestones are met) to allow time for railroads to adequately test their systems.
The required milestones, as defined in 49 U.S.C. 20157(a)(3)(B), are:
Overcoming Financial and Technical Challenges
The commuter rail industry has faced significant financial constraints and technical challenges in implementing PTC.
Total cost: PTC will cost an estimated $4.1 billion to implement and up to $130 million a year in maintenance and operation costs.
Funding available: Since Congress mandated PTC in 2008, the federal government has awarded $272 million in PTC grants, $197 million of which was awarded just over a year ago, at the end of May 2017. In May 2018, the Federal Railroad Administration made another $260 million available for PTC, which has not been awarded yet. At a time when the national state-of-good repair backlog stands at an estimated $90 billion, commuter railroads had to divert funds from other critical infrastructure and safety priorities.
Limited contractors: There is a limited number of contractors with the expertise to install PTC on both commuter rail and freight railroads. Both required these suppliers at the same time, causing delays in installation.
Acquiring spectrum: PTC requires radio spectrum to transmit data between trains and communications towers (just like the spectrum needed to work everything wireless, from your garage door opener to your cell phone). Early on, a major hurdle was gaining access to the necessary spectrum.
Time to install: PTC must be installed and tested while simultaneously continuing to provide safe, reliable service for commuters who took 501 million trips in 2017 alone.
Interoperability: Many railroads run on tracks that they own or are hosted by freight railroads, or a combination of both. Critical to the successful implementation of PTC is making sure that all trains, tracks and the back-office of each railroad communicate with one another.