Innovating To Meet Challenges

The implementation of PTC is a historic innovation and one of the most significant rail developments since the 1800s. Implementing PTC is an unparalleled technological and financial challenge in scale, complexity, and time required.


Innovation: Technology


The commuter rail industry needed to innovate in order to both find the funding for PTC as well as successfully develop, test, and install much of this technology and systems that didn’t previously exist.

Engineers monitor performance of the communications between the train and the PTC system during a simulated train run in Metra’s PTC lab (Metra,

Commuter rail operates on an interconnected array of systems that needs to be customized according to its use in each system — for example, making freight rail technology interoperable with commuter rail technology that shares a track.


What works for one commuter railroad may not work for another. This means that each passenger rail system needs to innovate its own unique solution.


Some of those challenges have included:

  • Gaining access to the necessary radio spectrum to dedicate to PTC
  • The limited availability of vendors who are in high demand
  • The interoperability of commuter and freight rail
  • PTC must be installed and tested while regular commuter service continues to operate

SEPTA officials demonstrate Positive Train Control countermeasures on a commuter train operating on the agency’s Frazer test track (SEPTA,

Innovation: Funding


Implementing PTC has also had financial challenges. Estimates suggest that PTC will cost the commuter rail industry $4.1 billion. As of now, only $435 million has been allotted by the federal government.


That has meant that commuter rail systems have had to squeeze funding from an already tight budget.


In addition, the PTC funding deficit is on top of an estimated $90 billion to modernize our infrastructure up to a “state of good repair” – that’s $90 billion to update infrastructure, not create new infrastructure.


Two commuter rail operators have also secured a total of $1.3 billion of federal loans to help pay for PTC installation. While this financing has been helpful, the burden of repaying these loans still falls on public agencies that already face significant financial pressures.

“Our prior work on PTC implementation has found that it is a complex and lengthy process. It requires the integration of various components— including communication systems, hardware on locomotives and along the side of the track, and software in centralized office locations as well as onboard the train and along the track.


In order to implement PTC, railroads must design, produce, and install more than 20 major components that will ultimately communicate trains’ locations, movements, and speed, and then slow or stop a train that is not being operated safely. Many of these components are new technologies being designed and developed for PTC, and railroads must integrate them with their existing systems.”


– Written Testimony of Susan Fleming, Director, Physical Infrastructure, of the Government Accountability Office, Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate (March, 2018)

“Railroad representatives and experts have reported that PTC implementation is the biggest change in the railroad industry since it transitioned from steam to diesel locomotives in the mid-20th century.”


– Government Accountability Office Report to the Chairman, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate (August, 2013)

Spotlight on Commuter Rail

Northeast Illinois

Metra is one of the largest and most complex commuter rail systems in North America, serving Cook, DuPage, Will, Lake, Kane and McHenry counties in northeastern Illinois. The agency provides service to and from downtown Chicago with 242 stations over 11 routes totaling nearly 500 route miles and approximately 1,200 miles of track. Metra operates nearly 700 weekday trains, providing nearly 290,000 passenger trips each weekday.

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Southern California

Metrolink has been providing rail transportation to Southern California since 1992. Nearly 12 million passenger trips are taken on Metrolink trains each year on seven routes across a six-county, 538 route-mile network, which includes a portion of northern San Diego County. As a facet of their continuous efforts to adapt and innovate with technology to provide the safest possible form of surface transportation available, Metrolink began implementing and planning to integrate Positive Train Control – known as PTC – on all their tracks in 2008.

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Philadelphia, PA

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is the sixth largest public transportation system in the nation, providing 1.1 million daily passenger trips on a multimodal network that spans 2,200 square miles in Philadelphia and the four surrounding counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery, as well as Trenton and West Trenton, New Jersey and Wilmington and Newark, Delaware.  SEPTA’s Regional Rail (commuter rail) system consists of a radial network of 13 rail lines and 155 stations that provide service to and from Center City Philadelphia.  SEPTA operates 770 weekday Regional Rail trains over 474 track miles.  Annual Regional Rail ridership has increased more than 50 percent in the past 20 years.

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