By Jennifer LeDuc
Apassenger train eight cars long, going 75 miles per hour, will make three, five-minute long stops before arriving at the station, 11 miles away. Another train, 85 cars long and carrying several hundred tons of freight, is traveling 25 miles per hour and is 8 miles away from the station. Calculate not just how long it takes for each train to stop (factoring in weight, of course) but predict when each train will pass through the crossings (factoring in, of course, unexpected delays like a passenger holding the doors open and delaying departure from a stop) and synchronize your calculations with wireless technology and global positioning satellites orbiting the earth, harmoniously collaborate land access, radio frequencies, public utilities and traffic signals with the appropriate agencies, municipalities, and other railroads, and then synchronize and transmit all of that data, commanding the safety gates to drop, and rise again, within seconds of the train passing. And please, no train whistle.
Confused? You should be. This is not a sinister twist on the algebra equation you never did quite master. This is what might be considered a barbaric, if not rudimentary, explanation of the technological ballet that is the RTDs multi-billion-dollar commuter line project.
And this is why, for those anxiously awaiting the G Line, your train has not arrived.
The G Line, formerly known as Gold, is 11 miles long and will make seven stops from Union Station to Ward Road in Wheat Ridge in 25 minutes. Originally slated to open in October of 2016, the line, while not stalled as some may suggest, is nearly a year delayed due to testing and technological differences that have overshadowed the RTDs inagural A Line, which offers roundtrip service between Union Station and DIA.
Although the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) gave approval on Oct. 12 to resume testing on the G Line, RTD still awaits approval of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which, in September, rejected RTD’s application to finish testing.
While these delays and the emotions surrounding them have received prominent attention locally, the revolutionary technology that is federally mandated to rule the nations railways – including RTD’s Positive Train Control – has not.
“We have a system working as it was intended to,” explains John Thompson, a rail industry veteran and the executive project director of Denver Transit Partners (DTP), the private consortium in partnership with and contracted by RTD to finance, develop and manage the A, B and G lines. “What we have to do is get regulators comfortable with the new technology.”
This “new technology” had been conceptually on the radar of the rail industry for several years, when on Sept. 12, 2008, in Chatsworth, Calif., 25 people were killed. A Metrolink commuter train traveling about 40 mph crashed head-on with a freight train traveling about the same speed, which five seconds earlier emerged from a tunnel. The engineer of the freight train pulled the emergency brake lever on his 100 tons of metal two seconds before impact. An investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Bureau revealed the engineer of the commuter train, who perished in the accident, had been sending text messages throughout his shift that evening and missed a series of red signals that should have prevented him from proceeding on the single track section. Further, the conductor on the commuter train could have pulled an emergency lever – known as a dead man’s switch – when he failed to receive a signal report from the engineer, as are the operating rules when there is only one engineer.
The following month, on Oct. 16, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 was signed into law after swift passage through Congress. The act mandated a number of safety measures, most significantly installation of “new technology” called Positive Train Control, across the nation's railway system by December 2015.
Positive Train Control (PTC), as explained by the FRA “uses communication-based/processor-based train control technology that provides a system capable of reliably and functionally preventing train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and the movement of a train through a main line switch in the wrong position.” Essentially, if the the engineer does not slow or stop the train appropriately anywhere, for any reason – distraction, impairment, misjudgement, etc. – the system overrides human control, applies the brakes and stops the train, theoretically averting disaster and saving lives.
It is widely accepted that if Metrolink had functioning PTC in place at the time, the crash most likely would have been avoided and no lives lost. But, unfortunately, at the time of the crash, and certainly not a month later upon passage of the Rail Safety Act, PTC was hardly a fully developed technology and both freight and commuter railroads, including Amtrak, were now required to invest millions to do so, despite rail travel being one of the safest forms of travel in this country.
According to the Department of Transportation, between the years 2000 and 2007 the average number of train accident fatalities, excluding deaths due to trespassing and at grade crossings, was 12. Between 2009 and 2016 the average was eight. Still, since 1960, the total number of train accident fatalities is 394, less than the number of people killed riding a bicycle in any of those years, and still less than the 559 pipeline-related deaths deaths between 1962 and 2016. Between millions of dollars awarded in government grants, development, construction, implementation and improvement costs, taxpayers have spent a lot of money on PTC. While it’s impossible to quantify a life, neither the FRA nor the DOT were available to answer why.
Metrolink completed its implementation, testing and approval of its $200 million PTC system in 2016 after a year of disastrous glitches and delays. While the first commuter line to do so, many other freight and commuter rails around the nation have not despite millions of dollars invested, and like RTD, have extended deadlines with the FRA.
“It’s so complicated,” said Nate Currey, senior manager of public relations at RTD, explaining the technology and the exceptional levels and degrees of collaboration required among agencies. “You just don’t think about everything that’s involved.” Like radio frequencies, signaling systems, gate crossings, land easements, utility access, satellites, wireless communication, and hardware and software that performs consistently and exactly in an environment with extreme weather and temperature variations.
To further complicate things, Currey explained that PTC is just “one layer of three systems” that DTP has put in place. “We are the only ones in the country with this unique technology.
“We got ambitious when we put the bid out,” said Curry. “We thought ‘this is going to be the future so we may as well put it in now.’”
PTC is one layer, and Automatic Train Control (ATC) – a century-old but fairly reliable standard method of speed control – is the second layer, and thirdly are the electric signals at gate crossings.
That third layer – the at-gate crossing functionality – has been the crux of the issue with the A Line. Not just in working out timing and software issues and other kinks that are par for the course when developing anything, but in relation to being tested and approved by the FRA and CPUC. It’s so new, explained Curry, that the agencies initially looked at it and said, “Wow. How do we regulate this?”
Although the approval process has been and will continue to be slow, both Curry and Thompson are effusive in their confidence with the technology and implementation, and despite being still stuck at a very long red light with the FRA, RTD and DTP are proudly reporting the A and B lines are operating on time, with stats better than the commuter rail’s cousin, light rail.
In northern California, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has recently completed a very similar system to the RTD’s, and was, until mid-August, reporting similar delays in federal approval despite satisfactory performance. However, at the end of August their system was finally given the green light and their new service is up and reportedly running smoothly. The FRA was not available to answer inquiries into the SMART’s system or the approval of it.
As PTC implementation and technology has evaded the public’s understanding in relation to RTD’s challenges with the A and G lines, so to has understanding as to how very different the the A, B and G lines are from RTD’s light rail network. Why are there not the same technological and regulatory issues on the W Line that are hampering the G Line? Why didn’t RTD contract with the same firm behind the W Line’s development? Why do gates on the W Line work when the A Line’s do not?
If the light rail is a Schwinn cruiser bicycle, the commuter rail is a BMW motorcycle. They both have two wheels, and are ridden, but the similarities stop there.
The commuter rail is built around a 70-ton, steel-bodied train car manufactured in South Korea by Hyundai-Rotem. RTD purchased 66 cars for the A, B and G lines. The commuter lines run on tracks that are parallel to, but do not share, freight rail. The level of comfort and accommodations differs on the commuter rail, with capacity for more passengers, and it is markedly faster than the light rail, traveling up to 79 mph. The light rail lines have more frequent stops, enabled by the light rail’s ease at accelerating and deaccelerating quickly, although its top speed is 55 mph. The light rail operates along more urban corridors. Since the commuter line shares corridors – and crossings – with the freight railroad, the compliances and the required operating technology necessary to be in accordance with the 2008 safety act are vastly different.