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First Coaster Weekend Positive Train Control Trip 12/16/2017

by Chris Guenzler

I contacted the North County Transportation District about being able to photograph the Positive Train Control in their cab car and received a yes. So on this Saturday morning I went down to Santa Ana and found out two things. Firstly, Pacific Surfliner 562 was running ten minutes late and secondly, the Metrolink machine on the station side was not working so I went over the pedestrian bridge to the machine over there, and then went into the station to report that non-working machine. I then went track side to wait for my late train.

Pacific Surfliner 562 arrived and I boarded the cab car for my trip down to Oceanside. We stopped at Irvine before we were stopped at CP Avery for Pacific Surfliner 763 then to San Juan Capistrano and then to the Pacific Ocean on a cloudy morning.

First view of the Pacific Ocean.

The San Clemente Pier. I rode on to Oceanside and thanked my Amtrak crew for a great trip this morning.

A Positive Train Control Overview

Train protection systems are used to control traffic movement by technical means. They are especially needed in cases of high speed transportation, dense traffic with short succession of trains and mixed type traffic at wide differing speeds. So the train protection systems were in practical testing at least since the beginning of the 1930s in Europe.

Stopping a running train is the main goal of any train protection system. This is most easily done with stop order, and without a special order the vehicle is allowed to run. A typical representative for this "negative train control" is Indusi. In contrary to this "easy moving", a PTC restricts the train movement to an explicit allowance and it is stopped after invalidation.

After the decline of railway transit in the United States after World War II, there was also less impetus for investments in train security. Toward the end of the 1980s, a search for solutions re-emerged together with an inventory of technical possibilities.

The main concept of PTC (as defined for North American Class I freight railroads) is that the train receives information about its location and where it is allowed to safely travel, also known as movement authorities. Equipment on board the train then enforces this, preventing unsafe movement. PTC systems may work in either dark territory or signaled territory, and may use GPS navigation to track train movements.

The Federal Railroad Administration has listed among its goals, "To deploy the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System as a nationwide, uniform, and continuous positioning system, suitable for train control."

Various other benefits are sometimes associated with PTC such as increased fuel efficiency or locomotive diagnostics; these are benefits that can be achieved by having a wireless data system to transmit the information, whether it be for PTC or other applications.

The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association describes Positive Train Control as having these primary characteristics:

Train separation or collision avoidance

Line speed enforcement

Temporary speed restrictions

Rail worker wayside safety

In the 1990s, Union Pacific Railroad had a partnership project with General Electric to implement a similar system known as "Precision Train Control". This system would have involved moving block operation, which adjusts a "safe zone" around a train based on its speed and location. The similar abbreviations have sometimes caused confusion over the definition of the technology. GE later abandoned the Precision Train Control platform.


Positive train control (PTC) is a system of functional requirements for monitoring and controlling train movements and is a type of train protection systems. The term stems from Control Engineering. The train is only allowed to move in case of positive movement allowance. It generally improves the safety of railway traffic.


Starting in 1990 the National Transportation Safety Board of the USA counted PTC (then known as positive train separation) among its "Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements." At the time, the vast majority of rail lines in USA relied on the human crew for complying with all safety rules, and a significant fraction of accidents were attributable to human error, as evidenced in several years of official reports from the FRA.

In September 2008, the USA Congress considered a new rail safety law that set a deadline of December 15, 2015, for implementation of PTC technology across most of the U.S. rail network. The bill, ushered through the legislative process by the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was developed in response to the collision of a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train September 12, 2008, in California, which resulted in the deaths of 25 and injuries to more than 135 passengers.

As the bill neared final passage by Congress, the Association of American Railroads issued a statement in support of the bill. President George W. Bush signed the 315-page Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 into law on October 16, 2008.

Provisions of the law

Among its provisions, the law provides funding to help pay for the development of PTC technology, limits the number of hours freight rail crews can work each month, and requires the Department of Transportation to determine work hour limits for passenger train crews.


To implement the law, the FRA published final regulations for PTC systems on January 15, 2010. The agency proposed amendments to its rules on December 11, 2012.

In December 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that Amtrak and the major Class I railroads have taken steps to install PTC systems under the law, but commuter rail operators were not on track for the 2015 deadline. As of June 2015, only seven commuter systems (29 percent of those represented by APTA) were expecting to make the deadline. Several factors have delayed implementation, including the need to obtain funding (which was not provided by Congress); the time it has taken to design, test, make interoperable, and manufacture the technology; and the need to obtain radio spectrum along the entire rail network, which involves FCC permission and in some cases negotiating with an existing owner for purchase or lease.

The Metrolink commuter rail system in Southern California is planning to be the first U.S. passenger carrier to install the technology on its entire system. After some delays, demonstration PTC in revenue service began in February 2014; the system is expected to be completed in late summer 2015.

In the Chicago metropolitan area, the Metra system expected it will not be fully compliant with the PTC mandate until 2019.

In October 2015 Congress passed a bill extending the compliance deadline by three years, to December 31, 2018. President Barack Obama signed the bill on October 29, 2015.


There is some controversy as to whether PTC makes sense in the form mandated by Congress. Not only is the cost of nationwide PTC installation expected to be as much as US$6-22 billion, there are questions as to the reliability and maturity of the technology for all forms of mainline freight trains and high density environments. The PTC requirement could also impose startup barriers to new passenger rail or freight services that would trigger millions of dollars in additional PTC costs. The unfunded mandate also ties the hands of the FRA to adopt a more nuanced or flexible approach to the adoption of PTC technology where it makes the most sense or where it is technically most feasible.

While the FRA Rail Safety Advisory Committee identified several thousand "PPAs" (PTC preventable accidents) on U.S. railroads over a 12-year period, cost analysis determined that the accumulated savings to be realized from all of the accidents was not sufficient to cover the cost of PTC across the Class I railroads. Therefore, PTC was not economically justified at that time. The FRA concurred with this cost assessment in its 2009 PTC rulemaking document.

The reason behind the lack of economic justification is that the majority of accidents are minor and FRA crash worthiness standards help mitigate the potential loss of life or release of hazardous chemicals. For example, in the 20 years between 1987 and 2007, there were only two PTC-preventable accidents with major loss of life in the United States (16 deaths in the Chase, Maryland wreck (1987) and 11 in the Silver Spring, Maryland wreck (1996)), and in each case, the causes of the accidents were addressed through changes to operating rules.

The cost of implementing PTC on up to 25 commuter rail services in the United States has been estimated at over $2 billion and because of these costs, several services are having to cancel or reduce repairs, capital improvements and service. Other services simply do not have the funds available for PTC and have deferred action assuming some change from Congress. Railroads that operate lines equipped with cab signalling and existing Automatic Train Control systems have argued that their proven track record of safety, which goes back decades, is being discounted because ATC is not as aggressive as PTC in all cases.

Basic operation

A typical PTC system involves two basic components: speed display and control unit on the locomotive and a method to dynamically inform the speed control unit of changing track or signal conditions.

Optionally, three additional components may exist: an on-board navigation system and track profile database to enforce fixed speed limits; a bi-directional data link to inform signaling equipment of the train's presence; and centralized systems to directly issue movement authorities to trains.

PTC infrastructure

There are two main PTC implementation methods currently being developed. The first makes use of fixed signaling infrastructure such as coded track circuits and wireless transponders to communicate with the onboard speed control unit. The other makes use of wireless data radios spread out along the line to transmit the dynamic information. The wireless implementation also allows for the train to transmit its location to the signaling system which could enable the use of moving or "virtual" blocks. The wireless implementation is generally cheaper in terms of equipment costs, but is considered to be much less reliable than using "harder" communications channels. For example, the wireless ITCS system on Amtrak's Michigan Line was still not functioning reliably in 2007 after 13 years of development, while the fixed ACSES system has been in daily service on the Northeast Corridor since 2002.

The fixed infrastructure method is proving popular on high-density passenger lines where pulse code cab signaling has already been installed. In some cases, the lack of a reliance on wireless communications is being touted as a benefit. The wireless method has proven most successful on low density, unsignaled dark territory normally controlled via track warrants, where speeds are already low and interruptions in the wireless connection to the train do not tend to compromise safety or train operations.

Some systems, like Amtrak's ACSES, operate with a hybrid technology that uses wireless links to update temporary speed restrictions or pass certain signals, with neither of these systems being critical for train operations.

Locomotive speed control unit

The equipment on board the locomotive must continually calculate the trains' current speed relative to a speed target some distance away governed by a braking curve. If the train risks not being able to slow to the speed target given the braking curve, the brakes are automatically applied and the train is immediately slowed. The speed targets are updated by information regarding fixed and dynamic speed limits determined by the track profile and signaling system.

Most current PTC implementations also use the speed control unit to store a database of track profiles attached to some sort of navigation system. The unit keeps track of the train's position along the rail line and automatically enforces any speed restrictions as well as the maximum authorized speed. Temporary speed restrictions can be updated before the train departs its terminal or via wireless data links. The track data can also be used to calculate braking curves based on the grade profile. The navigation system can use fixed track beacons or differential GPS stations combined with wheel rotation to accurately determine the train's location on the line within a few feet.

Centralized control

While some PTC systems interface directly with the existing signal system, others may maintain a set of vital computer systems at a central location that can keep track of trains and issue movement authorities to them directly via a wireless data network. This is often considered to be a form of Communications Based Train Control and is not a necessary part of PTC.

The Coaster Trip

I went to the Coaster ticket machine and bought my round-trip ticket then walked down to the Coaster on Track 3 and met the crew. I showed them the letter then was told there was good and bad news. The cab car does not have PTC but the engine does. So the crew came up with a plan that the management approved for me which was to take pictures on the engine when we return to Oceanside. So we made the trip down to San Diego through all the new construction zones to increase the single track to double track in several area along the route in San Diego County. I boarded the cab car for the non-PTC ride and once in San Diego, I detrained.

Coaster 630 in San Diego.

PTC Coaster 631 in San Diego. I rode back to Oceanside and received the bad news that no photography was allowed in the engine. That was all right with me so I came up with a new plan. We arrived back in Oceanside and I went straight to Burger King for a pair of plain hamburgers then walked to Track 2 and boarded Metrolink 663 and took a table in the bicycle car where I usually ride.

I then detrained for a picture of Metrolink 663 in Oceanside. I went in the cab car, went upstairs and found the engineer's compartment door opened. I did not go inside but took a few pictures.

The engineer's compartment of a Rotem cab car.

TMS Control Panel which controls and monitors escape route doors and doors in security-relevant areas from a central location. They are ready for remote control of doors or groups of doors and therefore especially suitable to realise airlock systems or access control systems in security-relevant areas. Control panels are frequently used in forensic or psychiatric facilities, where not every single escape route door has an individual emergency pushbutton, and all doors are controlled from a continuously manned central control room.

The Positive Train Control screen in the Rotem cab car. On Metrolink lines they show all signals, but the BNSF version shows control points as well. We left Oceanside on time and moved north on the railroad this Saturday.

Amtrak Viewliner baggage car 61040.

Los Angeles Metro subway cars. We arrived at Los Angeles and I detrained then walked over to where Santa Fe 3751 was on display today.

Santa Fe 4-8-4 3751 built by Baldwin in 1927 with a Christmas wreath on its nose.

Amtrak B32-8WH 507 built by General Electric in 1991.

Santa Fe "Acoma", built by Budd in 1936 for the new streamlined Santa Fe Super Chief. This all new, extra-fare sleeper car train went into revenue service on May 18, 1937 on a once a week round-trip between Chicago and Los Angeles. As built, it was a lounge/dormitory/barber shop car. The Super Chief was the train of the Hollywood Stars and the rich and famous. The car was purchased in 1995 by John Bond and Ronald Ashcraft of Albuquerque {Southwest Rail Car LLC} who have continued to restore and preserve this car.

Observation Car "Tioga Pass", built by Canadian National Railway in 1959. Originally number 23, and later number 93, "Tioga Pass" spent most of its life in Edmonton, Alberta where it served the Vice President of the Mountain Region. In 1992 Canadian National decided to sell the car, and a local businessman in Barstow, California named Rutherford P. "Rudy" Hayes bought it sight unseen because, as he put it, "I always just wanted one." In an epic trip, the car travelled from Edmonton to Barstow in January 1993. Through fierce cold and driving blizzards, the passengers stayed warm inside. Its new owner was like a proud father, pronouncing the car was all he ever thought it would be. Unfortunately, Rudy never got the chance to travel on his new car. He died of a heart attack only months after it was delivered. The car sat, forlorn and neglected in front of the Harvey House train station in Barstow for several years. Aronco Leasing Company and Norman Orfall purchased the car in 1997 from the Hayes estate and completely overhauled it over several years.

Metrolink F125 908. I next visited Weztel Pretzels in Union Station, returned to Metrolink 664 and took my seat in the bicycle car for that quick trip to Santa Ana. I went home for just a few minutes before I drove over to CP Lincoln to wait for a train at 3:22 PM.

Here is the final Festival of the Lights Train to the Mission Inn of the year at CP Lincoln in Santa Ana. I returned home then wrote this story.