Last August, we released a rail safety report, “Back on Track: Bringing Rail Safety into the 21st Century,” which focused on technologies and best practices that if incorporated would improve passenger and freight rail safety. At the time we noted that we wanted to kick start a conversation on the subject and were eager to learn more about ongoing government and industry efforts. Since today is Capitol Hill’s Railroad Day, we wanted to shed light on key government and industry happenings and efforts we noticed since our report was published.

Positive Train Control (PTC) Implementation

It was clear that regulated parties were not prepared to comply the statutorily mandated December 31, 2015 deadline for full PTC implementation. On October 29, 2015, President Obama signed the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2015 (PL 114-73), which among other things modified PTC implementation deadlines.

This legislation extended the PTC implementation deadline until December 31, 2018 and required all regulated parties to submit a revised plan for implementing PTC to the Federal Railroad Administration prior to the new deadline. The plan includes the how, what, when and where behind the steps necessary to become fully compliant by the end of 2018.

American Association of Railroads (AAR) “State of the Industry Report”

Part 1 of AAR’s “State of the Industry Report” for 2016 provided numerous examples of innovative technologies used by freight railroads to improve rail safety. With track and infrastructure being the leading cause of all derailments, the rail industry is looking into whether drones can assist in track inspections, and are investing in and testing “multidimensional ultrasonic technology” that can locate defects in tracks before the defects cause an accident. Industry is also researching whether metallurgical advancements could improve track composition.

Other rail safety technologies include ground-penetrating radars to detect roadbed integrity challenges, and wayside detectors to ensure railroad equipment is in good repair. One of the primary contributors to derailments caused by lacking infrastructure is poor track geometry. Railroads have worked with government to design computer systems that can analyze track geometry and predict how certain areas of track will respond to freight cars, which will help prioritize track maintenance.

We look forward to seeing how far innovative technologies in the rail industry advance, and how uniformly they are adopted. If these technologies exist and improve safety, they should be used either voluntarily or through government mandate. We will continue to monitor safety improvements across the industry and follow up as new developments occur.