United States: Positive Train Control: Roadblocks To Interoperability

Hwi Harold Lee is an Associate and Ieuan G. Mahony is a partner in Holland & Knight's Boston office

Positive Train Control (PTC) is a system that will automatically apply the train's brakes in certain situations. PTC systems consist of technologies designed to help detect dangerous situations and automatically intervene to prevent a wide range of rail accidents. Among these are excess speed, rear end collisions, and misaligned switches. Legislators have debated for decades whether to require railroads to install PTC systems. Following a series of fatal accidents in 2008 (including a collision between a freight train and a commuter train in Chatsworth, California that resulted in 25 deaths), Congress passed a mandate requiring all railroads to install and adopt PTC systems.1

Interoperability and Disclosure Requirements

Interoperability is a key component required for a nationwide implementation of PTC. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) defined interoperability as "the ability of a [PTC-equipped train] to communicate with and respond to the PTC railroad's [PTC] system, including uninterrupted movements over property boundaries."2

Federal Rules require that applicable railroad companies, including commuter services operating over a freight railroad's tracks, each file a PTC Implementation Plan (a PTCIP) that describes how its PTC system "provides for interoperability of the system between the host and all tenant railroads3 on the track segments required to be equipped with PTC systems...."4 To enforce compliance with the PTC Implementation Plan, railroad companies are required to disclose materials that may be confidential or otherwise sensitive information, including:

  • (i) [...] relevant provisions of agreements, executed by all applicable railroads, in place to achieve interoperability;
  • (ii) [...] all methods used to obtain interoperability; and
  • (iii) the [identity of] any railroads with respect to which interoperability agreements have not been achieved as of the time the plan is filed, the practical obstacles that were encountered that prevented resolution, and the further steps planned to overcome those obstacles

Possible Roadblocks

Among other challenges, achieving the FRA-prescribed interoperability has proven to be an tremendous task. Congress initially required that railroad companies finish the implementation of PTC systems by December 2015. The December 2015 deadline, however, has since been extended to December 2018, due, in part, to delays in the development of certain key technologies and possible legal and business roadblocks that could have hampered railroad companies.

Two key issues relating to interoperability that may inhibit implementing PTC systems include a lack of consistent standards and vendors' efforts to protect their proprietary information and intellectual property.

PTC systems typically consist of a multitude of hardware and software components that must be capable of interoperating with other components within the same PTC system, and those components of PTC systems in use by other, connected railroads. For example, assume that companies "A," "B," and "C" each operate a separate, yet, interconnected network of railroads. For PTC to properly function, different devices installed on a locomotive operated by Company A must be capable of interacting with: (i) devices installed on other PTC segments in use by Company A, such as back offices and wayside locations, and (ii) devices installed on PTC segments operated by Company B and Company C. Without common standards among the different vendors that provide PTC system components, railroad companies' efforts to comply with the interoperability requirements may be hindered, and could add to the overall complexity of PTC solutions.

The FRA's interoperability requirements for PTC are broadly consistent with so-called "open architecture" deployments. Entities procuring technology increasingly favor these types of deployments. In an open architecture deployment, the vendor structures its product in discrete modules (either software, hardware, or both) that permit the procuring entity (i) to swap-out the original vendor's modules for equivalent, interchangeable modules of another vendor, and (ii) to interface with other systems that it, and its business partners, operate. Open architecture solutions can reduce – or eliminate – the risks of sole-source procurements and "vendor lock-in."

PTC solutions, however, are undoubtedly expensive to develop and, accordingly, vendors will likely seek to protect associated intellectual property and confidential information in order to secure their investment and to maximize their competitive advantage. Although such vendor efforts are understandable, they may interfere with railroad companies' regulatory obligations, including the obligation to make various disclosures regarding their PTC systems. In the absence of robust confidentiality and cooperation provisions, railroad companies may face difficulty meeting the disclosure requirements.


1 Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110–432, available at https://www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/Details/L03588 

2 49 C.F.R. § 236.1003. 

3 "Host railroad" is a railroad that has effective operating control over a segment of track. "Tenant railroad means a railroad, other than a host railroad, operating on track upon which a PTC system is required." Id. 

4 Id.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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