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The railroad industry is a mature business.  It has seen over a century of changes to the sector and has embraced many enhancements that have helped to improve safety, efficiency, and adapt to the ever changing business and regulatory imperatives.

Right now, railroads are facing greater change, within a shorter span of time, than ever before and it is a daunting task to manage, let alone comprehend.  Both passenger and freight railroads are seeing the insertion of substantial and complex advances driven by information and operational technologies.

Passenger train operators are grappling with computerized kiosks, automated access at turnstiles, smart RFID cards, video surveillance, cloud, analytics, autonomous trains, passenger and worker safety, and much more.


For most of the freight operators, the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) is demanding the implementation of PTC (Positive Train Control) features to revolutionize the way the business of operating these trains’ works.  For the past few years now, railroads have been implementing PTC technology on their trains and tracks. Once complete, PTC will help override human error and automatically bring a train to a stop before certain types of accidents occur.

PTC uses signals and sensors along the track to communicate train location, speed restrictions, and moving authority.  If the locomotive is violating a speed restriction or moving authority, onboard equipment will automatically slow or stop the train.  A more expansive version of PTC, called communications-based train control (CBTC), would bring additional safety benefits plus business benefits for railroad operators, such as increased capacity and reduced fuel consumption.


By the end of 2016, it is estimated that 63 percent of 22,066 locomotives will be equipped with PTC, and 51 percent of the 114,515 employees requiring training will be PTC-qualified.

Both sectors of the railroad industry are meeting these extraordinary changes head-on and it is both incredibly expensive and all-consuming for the industry senior leadership.  Railroads have invested more than $25 billion annually in recent years toward upgrades and maintenance to rail infrastructure and equipment. As well, this investment includes innovative, groundbreaking technologies that will further improve railroad safety.  For example, railroads are developing the use of drones to inspect track and bridges.

While technology is wonderful, it is still the people that operate these trains, both directly and indirectly, that make them safe.  The FRA is considering the use of single-person crews for freight trains.  We already see single-person crews for some passenger trains today.  Or, even passenger trains that are fully automated as is the case for many LRT lines.

Everyone knows, and FRA admits, that the precipitating event for the regulation of train crew staffing was the Lac-Mégantic disaster of 2013, where the single crew member assigned to a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic unit train of Bakken crude oil failed to properly secure the train, properly test the holding power of the handbrakes he did bother to apply, and shut down a locomotive spewing oil out the stack.  These failures led to the runaway and derailment of the tank cars, resulting in an explosive fire of the oil that spilled, killing 47 people and destroying downtown Lac-Mégantic.

These new technologies need to be seen as augmentation solutions to the staffing of a train and not as a displacement solution for critical employees.  While the risks vary from passenger to freight, from line to line, and for the cargo type carried, we need to consider a crawl, walk, run, approach here to mitigate risks.

It is not just freight lines that are facing massive scale disruption; many urban subway systems are years overdue for upgrades, maintenance, and changes to make these systems sustainable and reliable.  Jack Evans, the chairman of the Washington transit agency that oversees Metro spoke last week, at a conference examining Metro on its 40th birthday, he said out loud what Washingtonians had known for years: The capital’s once-glorious subway system, the nation’s second busiest, is short on cash and a terrible mess.  “It’s a system that’s maybe safe, somewhat unreliable, and that is being complained about by everybody,” declared Mr. Evans, who estimates that Metro could face a $100 million budget shortfall next fiscal year.  Then he dropped a bombshell.  He warned that whole lines may have to be closed for months for repairs, adding, “If we do nothing, 10 years from now the system won’t be running.”

Clearly, doing nothing is not an option.  Action is needed on all fronts but action is costly and multifaceted.  No easy solution is awaiting deployment.


“About $6 billion has been spent on PTC so far by Class I freight railroads,” said Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger.  “We expect the range to be $9-$10 billion by the time PTC is fully in place.  The technology is not-off-the shelf.  It had to be developed from scratch and isn’t just about plugging in or turning on components.  It is a complex step-by-step process, both in terms of safety engineering and implementation.  Field testing of PTC is essential for safely deploying the technology and will be a critical focus for the rail industry this year.  Currently, rail operators are discovering failure rates of up to 40% as they install and test PTC equipment in PTC labs and designated pilot territories, underscoring the importance of proper testing.  PTC technology will be overlay systems, meaning they will supplement existing train safety checks and balances.  The AAR’s State of the Industry Report shows America’s freight railroads are firmly committed to an even safer rail network through ongoing innovation and investment – $600 billion since 1980, averaging about $25 billion a year over the past five years.”

While the freight sector is moving forward at a breakneck speed, the solutions do not appear to be sufficiently mature for installation.  With a 40% failure rate, they are not offering a suitable starting position to ensure success at the end of the processes.  We normally expect to see 1%, or maybe 2% failure rates, so the current situation is simply not acceptable from a systems integration perspective.  Therefore, extending the imposed deadlines further needs to be considered in order to get it all right the first time.  No railroad, passenger or freight, long haul or LRT, can afford to waste capital with this level of risk.

The railroad industry is at a critical juncture in its history and whether or not it succeeds will depend upon the next two years of action.  But, considering the table stakes at play here, it is much smarter to adopt a play to win strategy by extending the time frame of the PTC deployments and revisiting the technology solutions to get it right.  As the old adage says, “we always seem to have time to do it again, instead of taking the time to do it right the first time”.  But, a misstep like to one that is developing here will cost billions to fix and extend the time table by many years anyway.  So, be warned!


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About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive Consultant with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 11 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN:TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO:TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX:TSX.V).  He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of four different Colleges in Ontario as well as for 16 years on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.



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