BOZEMAN – Montana Rail Link is the eighth largest railroad in the United States, and a new system designed specifically to remotely stop trains in their tracks will make all those miles of tracks even safer.
The system is called Positive Train Control, and MRL can install this new technology with the help of a $3.5 million federal railroad safety grant. Appropriate to its name, PTC gives the company the controls from a distance — to prevent the worst.
“PTC adds yet another layer of safety,” said Ross Lane, communications director of Montana Rail Link. He also said that PTC can help trains track a problem well before they get to it.
“Positive Train Control is an added safety layer to stop certain train accidents from occurring,” Lane said, “for example, train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by train speed.”
And utmost safety is not as simple as it sounds. According to Lane, it involves “GPS, land-based radio towers, computer controls both at the dispatch center as well as a system of computers on the train.”
In Belgrade, Central Valley Fire Marshal Bruce Hennequin is pretty used to the idea of trains and the danger they can pose. His crew responded when a man wearing dark clothes was nearly hit by a train a few weeks ago, forcing it to come to a stop.
“We see people wearing earbuds or headphones, listening to music, walking on the tracks,” Hennequin said. “In this case, that may not have done anything, but what PTC does allow for in the future is a very complex system of analytics.”
Lane said this is a voluntary precaution, as all the trains belonging to MRL are on Class Two tracks, and they don’t carry any passengers. Still, with this extra set of eyes, that could add a lot of protection for the future as well as make it easier for them to see farther down the tracks.
“At this time, there is no federal requirement for Class Two railroads,” Lane said.
Lane added that PTC uses technology like LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and will be helped along with the installation of new signals to make up for the spots along the routes with bad cell coverage.
“Every rule and regulation that’s written, you know, someone has paid for with blood or with their lives, and so we take this very seriously,” Lane said. And with 83% of all freight rails in the country using this, Lane says being the first to volunteer shows a priority.
“We believe it’s the right thing to do for our employees but also for the communities in which we operate,” Lane said.
According to the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act, all U.S. rails will be required to use PTC by December 2020.
-Cody Boyer reporting for MTN News