FRA to Railroads: Approval Required for PTC System Outages Under Certain Conditions

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor, Railway Age
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Railroads now must seek Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) approval before temporarily disabling their Positive Train Control (PTC) systems during infrastructure upgrades or capital projects, according to a notification in the Federal Register. A previous provision allowing them to just notify FRA of the disablement has expired.

“By law, PTC systems must govern operations on PTC-mandated main lines, which currently encompass approximately 58,000 route miles, and include Class I railroads’ main lines over which poison- or toxic-by-inhalation hazardous materials are transported, and any railroads’ main lines over which intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation is regularly provided,” FRA wrote in its Federal Register notification, which was published last month (download below). “Previously, FRA’s regulations permitted railroads to temporarily disable PTC systems where necessary to perform PTC system repair or maintenance. That temporary flexibility expired, by regulation, on December 31, 2022.”

While FRA acknowledged that several types of PTC systems can be “upgraded seamlessly,” without an interruption of PTC system service, the agency said that in “limited cases, even those types of PTC systems might experience temporary outages for a short period during certain infrastructure upgrades.”

FRA also said that the design of certain PTC systems, including the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System II on the Northeast Corridor, “may require more extended periods of outages to facilitate ongoing capital projects. FRA expects that, in such a case, a railroad would schedule the temporary disabling of its PTC system for the time posing the least risk to railroad safety and for the minimum time necessary to complete the capital project and recommission its PTC system.”

To obtain FRA approval, a railroad must submit a request to amend its FRA-certified PTC system pursuant to 49 CFR 236.1021(m), which outlines the process, content requirements, and FRA decision deadline (i.e., 45 days) for this specific type of Request for Amendment, according to the agency. FRA said it will review the request, including the proposed temporary outage, and determine whether granting it is “in the public interest and consistent with railroad safety, taking into consideration all changes in the method of operation and system functionalities, both within normal PTC system availability and in the case of a system failed state (unavailable).”

If approved, FRA said it may attach conditions such as:

  • “The host railroad and its applicable tenant railroads must comply with the operating rules specified in the host railroad’s FRA-approved PTCSP that would otherwise apply when a PTC system is temporarily disabled.”
  • “The host railroad shall make reasonable efforts to schedule the temporary disabling of its PTC system for times posing the least risk to railroad safety.”
  • “The host railroad shall notify FRA (via [email protected]) and each applicable tenant railroad at least seven days before the host railroad temporarily disables its PTC system.” In that notification, the exact date and disablement time period must be included as well as an explanation of how that date and time period “pose the least risk to railroad safety.”
  • “The host railroad shall notify all applicable train crews, including tenant railroads’ train crews, about the PTC system outage, including in accordance with the host railroad’s operating rules and practices, which may require, for example, such information to be provided via track bulletins, dispatcher bulletins or special instructions.”
  • “The host railroad shall place its PTC system back into service without undue delay, and the PTC system may not be disabled longer than the approved timeframe.”
  • “During the period in which the PTC system is temporarily disabled, the host railroad and its tenant railroads must comply with the operating restrictions under 49 CFR 236.1029(b), including the applicable speed limitations.”

FRA reported in the Federal Register that its notice “focuses on outages resulting from infrastructure upgrades or capital projects and does not address all types of PTC system outages.” Other provisions in FRA’s PTC regulations may instead apply. “For example, please see 49 CFR 236.1005(g) through (k) for the requirements and procedures associated with temporary rerouting for emergencies or planned maintenance,” the agency pointed out. “In addition, please see 49 CFR 236.1029(b), which outlines the requirements that apply when a railroad’s PTC system experiences an en route failure, including a cut out or malfunction.”

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