The North County Transit District
Making the Mark on PTC

The North County Transit District (NCTD) is responsible for public transportation in North San Diego County, California, covering approximately 1,020 square miles and providing 12 million passenger trips per year. In addition to bus service, paratransit service, light rail and on-demand service, the agency operates COASTER commuter rail service between Oceanside and downtown San Diego. COASTER specifically averages about 5,000 daily trips and 1.4 million annual trips, running on 41.1 miles of the mainline.


NCTD is implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) along the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo LOSSAN corridor, a 351-mile corridor traveling through six coastal counties in Southern California. The San Diego subdivision rail corridor is 60.3 miles running from the Orange County/San Diego County line to downtown San Diego. NCTD hosts both passenger and freight rail operations on the LOSSAN corridor. Metrolink and Amtrak provide passenger rail and BNSF and its short-line contractor, Pacific Sun, provide freight rail operations. As a result, NCTD needed to implement interoperable PTC with all of these carriers.

Commitment to Safety

Safety is the shared commitment of every commuter railroad in the nation, and the results speak for themselves: Traveling by commuter and intercity passenger rail is 18 times safer than traveling by automobile. The current nationwide effort to implement PTC – a signal safety technology that works to reduce human error in train operations – is a critical initiative of the industry’s commitment to strengthen commuter rail safety.


For the North County Transit District, implementing PTC, and making an already safe system even safer, was an exercise in innovation. With a firm commitment from the NCTD Board of Directors, the agency prioritized PTC implementation and through concerted efforts has now successfully implemented PTC.


In conjunction with contractor Herzog Technologies Incorporated, NCTD worked tirelessly to assemble and test the PTC system. Following an efficient plan and tremendous effort, in September 2017 after successfully running Revenue Service Demonstration on COASTER trains, NCTD requested certification from the FRA – excluding tenants – and completed the PTC System Safety Certification and Safety Plan submittals.

Innovating To Meet Challenges

The passage of the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) of 2008, which included the Positive Train Control implementation mandate, coincided with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and a period of historically low capital funding for NCTD. NCTD met the challenge of a new mandate amidst the challenge of continuing to advance critical infrastructure state of good repair projects.


First, PTC technology was not fully developed prior to the legislation that mandated implementation. Therefore, NCTD faced a market of limited vendors that had the technical capacity and resources to provide a system and the limited vendor market did not have an off of the shelf solution that was ready for implementation. It is important to note that significant elements of the PTC mandate, such as Roadway Worker Protection, are still under development.


Funding was a major challenge. NCTD’s annual CIP goal is $15 million to support all of the agency’s multimodal needs; NCTD’s PTC program was just under $90 million.


Another major challenge for NCTD related to hiring of key technical staff that would support PTC oversight. Again, PTC is a new technology—so it would be expected that it would be a challenge to identify staff that could meet the technical requirements associated with PTC.


During the PTC process, communication has been key for NCTD. NCTD has four tenant railroads that needed to be coordinated for this implementation process. NCTD organized monthly interoperability calls that include the FRA, Caltrans Division of Rail, Pacific Sun, Metrolink, BNSF Railway, and Amtrak. In addition to working toward its own implementation, NCTD believed that the agency had a vested interest in making sure that its tenants were fully implemented. All host railroads along the LOSSAN have implemented PTC as a host and interoperability between tenants is underway.


Keeping the public informed of what and why NCTD is implementing PTC has been also been very important. How will PTC affect me? What will I notice when the train is running PTC? NCTD messaged clearly that the answer to that is that you probably won’t notice when PTC is running and there won’t be noticeable effects.

NCTD Making the Mark

In September 2017, after successfully running Revenue Service Demonstration (RSD) on COASTER trains, NCTD requested certification from the FRA – excluding tenants – and completed the PTC System Safety Certification and Safety Plan submittals.


In December 2017, NCTD was able to roll out Extended RSD on all COASTER trains. The agency did this in a phased approach of activating PTC on a few trains each week until all trains were eventually running the system. The phased approach was chosen as part of NCTD’s effort to troubleshoot issues and minimize any potential delays. 100% of the agency’s engineers operated PTC in Extended RSD, and on September 21, 2018, the FRA gave conditional approval to NCTD’s PTC Safety Plan and conditionally certified our PTC system.


NCTD then entered into interoperability testing, meaning that other carriers such as passenger, commuter, and freight trains who operate on NCTD-owned rail could test their PTC systems for integration with NCTD’s system. It is imperative that our tenant rail partners—Amtrak, BNSF, Metrolink, and Pacific Sun Railroad—are able to seamlessly communicate and operate across all railroad systems.


NCTD is proud to say it is on track to complete full implementation of PTC by the current deadline of December 31, 2018.


For more information about NCTD’s PTC implementation, please visit: