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.
Commitment to Safety
Safety is the shared commitment of every commuter railroad in the nation. Traveling by commuter and intercity passenger rail is 18 times safer than traveling by automobile. The current nation-wide effort to implement Positive Train Control (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 Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), implementing PTC, and making an already safe system even safer, started at the top. A firm commitment from the SEPTA Board – during a time when capital funding availability was at an historical low for the agency – to back a staff recommendation to prioritize PTC implementation, coupled with proactive decision making and planning, and some good circumstances, combined to drive SEPTA’s PTC implementation efforts.
Following an efficient plan and tremendous effort, SEPTA received FRA approval in April 2016 to operate provisional revenue service on its Warminster Line, and since May 1, 2017, SEPTA commuter trains have been operating under PTC on all 13 of its Regional Rail Lines.
At a total project cost of more than $344 million, completing the installation of PTC for a system as large and complex as SEPTA was, and continues to be, a hard and challenging project. After working through a number of technical and operational challenges, SEPTA is continuing to address interoperability with freight tenants operating on various segments of its territory.
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 SEPTA. Facing a $5 billion state of good repair backlog, the Authority saw its annual Capital Budget slashed, to roughly one third that of its peer agencies peers. Infrastructure conditions – slow speed orders on aging viaducts and failures at substations running on 1920s technology and equipment – were impacting service. SEPTA was unable to advance critical infrastructure state of good repair projects, let alone take on a new mandate.
As a multimodal agency, the PTC mandate had a cascading effect on SEPTA’s bus, heavy rail and trolley infrastructure and operations, as already limited funds would have to be diverted from capital priorities on other modes to satisfy the commuter rail requirement.
In addition to funding challenges, SEPTA shared the same concerns as the rest of the industry following the passage of the RSIA – timing, compatibility, interoperability, and the lack of qualified vendors to accommodate industry-wide implementation of PTC in a finite period of time.
Thanks in large measure to the SEPTA Board’s commitment, SEPTA was one of the early transit systems to mobilize their PTC installation efforts. Backing staff recommendations to prioritize PTC implementation, despite a capital funding crisis, SEPTA’s operational and infrastructure divisions were placed under the newly created Deputy General Manager position. With both groups working toward the same goal, under the direction of then-Deputy General Manager, now General Manager, Jeffrey D. Knueppel, SEPTA had the entire organization mobilized on PTC. SEPTA was able to move quickly to develop a comprehensive work strategy, assemble a dedicated project team (SEPTA and Consultants), and garner the full support of individuals from across the organization.
If luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, SEPTA acknowledges that it had a few things break right for them.
First, SEPTA in 2013 received a $10 million U.S. DOT TIGER Grant and worked with CSX to physically separate freight and commuter rail operations to address interoperability where SEPTA’s West Trenton Line operated over the freight carrier’s Trenton branch. In a congested corridor that carries 57 SEPTA commuter trains and 30 CSX freight trains each day, the options for achieving PTC interoperability were limited without separation. The entire project was completed in less than two years in August 2015.
Second, was the passage at the end of 2013 of Act 89 – Pennsylvania’s landmark multi-modal transportation funding bill. Act 89 gave SEPTA a future, doubling its annual capital program. The bill provided critical funding to allow SEPTA to begin to address its $5 billion state of good repair backlog, it also made it possible for SEPTA to aggressively finish PTC implementation.
Bringing PTC to SEPTA required changes to four main system components – Vehicles, Communications, Signals, and the Control Center – and each has to be fully functioning and integrated with the other. In implementing PTC, SEPTA has:
- Installed more than 1,200 transponders
- Trained nearly 1,200 employees
- Equipped 387 vehicles with on-board equipment
One of the early action decisions was determining which Positive Train Control System SEPTA would install. Given that 47% of SEPTA trains operate on Amtrak territory at some point in their journey, SEPTA opted to utilize Amtrak’s PTC system – ACSES II.
SEPTA General Manager Jeff Knueppel is quick to highlight the strong in-house project team that has remained intact throughout implementation. This team has been key to finding innovative solutions to the challenges of implementing a new safety system across an extensive network in a short period of time.
While SEPTA benefited from being able to piggyback on Amtrak’s ACSES II system, PTC is not a one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf technology.
SEPTA and Ansaldo (now Hitachi) worked to make ACSES II – which was initially developed for Amtrak’s intercity passenger rail operations – more functional in a dense operating environment with greater stop frequency and more train interactions.
SEPTA developed a PTC test track at its Frazer Yard facility to demonstrate proof of concept and to create on-track operating scenarios to test the system while not interfering with regular operations. This gave SEPTA’s Engineers real-world experience with PTC early on.
On the eve of provisional revenue service operations, SEPTA encountered significant PTC radio frequency interference where their service operates near freight lines. The freight radios overwhelmed SEPTA’s PTC signals, rendering the system vulnerable in those areas. A complex solution was developed that satisfied the needs of both parties.
Coordinating a blend of in-house and third-party forces working on PTC simultaneously was also a challenge. SEPTA had in-house crews working to install Automatic Train Control (ATC) on two lines at a time. Then third-party forces followed behind, installing ACSES II. It was extremely difficult for SEPTA to operate regular service when they were working on that much territory at once.
At a time of record ridership on Regional Rail, where every vehicle and every crew member was needed for revenue service, SEPTA developed strategies for on-board vehicle system installations and training of railroad employees. Understanding the stakes, SEPTA personnel embraced the effort, and the Authority credits the professionalism and commitment to safety of its crews both in training and installation and now in revenue service.
The biggest challenge to SEPTA’s PTC effort also underscores the Authority’s commitment to implementation. Over the July 4th weekend in 2016, SEPTA discovered cracks on the support beams of their new Silverliner V rail cars, and 120 cars – one third of the entire fleet – had to be removed from service for the better part of five months. During that time SEPTA never wavered from their implementation plan – rolling out PTC on eight lines over the second half of the year.
The impact of PTC implementation on SEPTA’s customers – especially during that summer – has been significant, and while SEPTA is still seeing some trip time and schedule impacts as a result of PTC, regular communication with customers – PTC work updates, timetable changes, and transparency about short term inconveniences related to cars out of revenue service for PTC equipment installation – went a long way to mitigating impacts.
Making Solid Progress
Throughout this effort, SEPTA’s in-house project team has been working continuously with Amtrak, its freight partners, third-party contractors, and the FRA to address technical and interoperability challenges.
To date, SEPTA has already invested more than $337 million to implement PTC, following a strategic approach: 1) successfully separating from CSX on the West Trenton Line; 2) systematically rolling out PTC on SEPTA territory beginning in April 2016 and completing PTC implementation on 12 distinct segments by January 2017; 3) On May 1, 2017, activating PTC on the three lines that operate on Amtrak-owned track.
With work on projects 1-3 completed, and with SEPTA trains operating with PTC on all 13 Regional Rail Lines, the final major focus is completing the task of establishing interoperability with the freight lines – CSX and Norfolk Southern – operating along portions of SEPTA territory. Working with their freight partners, this phase of the program is scheduled to be completed by December 2018.
Additional Safety Measures
Safety is a hallmark of the commuter rail industry and while working on this major effort to install PTC, SEPTA has advanced other important safety initiatives.
While implementing PTC, SEPTA has also:
- Implemented a Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) voluntary reporting program in December 2016
- Completed the installation of inward and outward facing cameras in August of 2017
- Instituted Sleep Apnea screenings; and
- Constructed a new railroad simulator training center to help engineers train and prepare for real-world operating situations
SEPTA’s PTC experience is an extension of its Authority-wide commitment to safety. With all Regional Rail trains currently operating with PTC, and SEPTA on pace to complete interoperability with their freight tenants by the end of the year, the Authority looks forward to continuing to innovate along with the rest of the industry.
For more information about SEPTA’s PTC implementation, please visit: http://www.septa.org/ptc