What “60 Minutes” Got Wrong About the Railroads

On March 3rd, 60 Minutes ran a segment focused exclusively on the rail accident in Cayce, South Carolina in early 2018, ultimately commenting on the Positive Train Control (PTC) rail safety system.


The 60 Minutes segment painted a picture of neglect and unsafe operations in the rail industry, but failed to shed light on the fact that the delays in the implementation of PTC are not due to the railroad’s lack of will or funding.


North American railroad safety culture runs very deep. Everything revolves around the continuous improvement of safety, and most Railroads have the publicly stated objective of zero injuries or incidents. Even railroad IT meetings in the corporate office start with a safety briefing. Since the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, North American Class 1 railroads have invested over $10.6 billion of their own funds into this safety system.


The accident at Cayce, South Carolina was of course a tragedy.  However, 60 Minutes ironically failed to mention one critical element regarding PTC and the existing train control system. Per the NTSB preliminary report, “On the day before the accident, February 3, 2018, CSX signal personnel suspended the traffic control signal system to install updated traffic control system components for implementing positive train control (PTC) on the subdivision.  During the suspension, scheduled to last through February 4, 2018, dispatchers would use track warrants to move trains through absolute blocks in the work territory. The signal personnel stopped work at the accident location at 7:00 p.m., and were scheduled to return on February 4 to complete the effort.” Implementation of PTC on the segment of track where the accident occurred was actually in process.


The majority of US railroads have chosen Wabtec’s I-ETMS to implement PTC. The architectural approach and underlying technology used to implement I-ETMS has generated many challenges. The FRA’s Report to Congress in July 2018 documents some of these challenges. “As reliability and stability of PTC systems is still immature, railroads are experiencing significant technical issues with both PTC system hardware and PTC system software that often take considerable time to diagnose and resolve, impacting current operations.”


Per the February 15th, 2019 release from the FRA: “PTC is the most significant and complex infrastructure investment America’s railroads have ever undertaken,” said FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory. “Operating and maintaining a safe and reliable national rail network while instituting PTC is paramount. FRA will continue to work with a sense of urgency to ensure all railroads, particularly commuter railroads, remain focused and vigilant in satisfying key deadlines ahead.”


Wi-Tronix is fully committed to safety in both the freight and passenger rail industry. We are proud to offer solutions that not only help address the challenges of I-ETMS but also offer complementary and alternative safety solutions.