BNSF Offers First-Hand Look at Positive Train Control Technology

May 25, 2018 07:35 PM

Dozens of freight trains, sometimes hauling loads weighing as much as 20,000 tons, pass through the Twin Cities every day. And railroad companies are facing an end-of-year deadline to put new safety technology in place called positive train control(PTC).

BNSF Railway gave 5 EYEWITNESS News a rare, behind-the-scenes look at how the technology works. Inside the company's locomotive simulator, operators can test their skills as an engineer. 


First, the PTC system gives the operator a warning. It uses a complex network of GPS technology, track sensors and radio towers to constantly monitor the train's speed, the grade it is traveling and the track ahead. If the engineer doesn't take action, the computer can take control of the train to ensure it slows down to an acceptable speed to round a bend or even stop to avoid a crash.

RELATED: Taconite Train Derails in Northeastern Minnesota 

"I think people would be surprised to realize how high tech the railroad is," Amy McBeth, with BNSF Railway, said. "If something were to happen and the crew doesn't respond, PTC would take over and stop that train in certain circumstances to prevent an incident from happening."

McBeth said BNSF has spent more than a decade developing and deploying PTC technology at a cost of more than $2.2 billion. The company is one of the first to fully implement the technology across all locomotives and mandated routes. All railroad companies must have it in place by the end of 2018 to meet a federal mandate.

Many remember the fiery crash that happened near Casselton, ND in December 2013, when a BNSF train hauling grain derailed and another BNSF train carrying crude oil hit a derailed car headed the opposite direction on the adjacent track. Federal investigators determined a faulty axel was the cause of the derailment that triggered the crash.

And while McBeth says it's not possible to know for sure, she says PTC technology could have given the engineer of the oil train an earlier warning to try and stop the train. She credits PTC technology now in place and other high-tech systems for BNSF's 20 percent reduction in accidents since 2015, according to records from the Federal Railroad Administration.

RELATED: 2 Amtrak Worker Killed, 116 Hurt in South Carolina Crash 

The railroad saw 424 accidents nationwide in 2015, 351 in 2016 and 339 in 2017. Industry-wide, accidents among all railroads are down 15 percent since 2015.

"PTC is the latest example of how we are utilizing technology to improve safety," McBeth said.

RELATED: US Investigators SAy Deadly Amtrak Train Crash Preventable


Matt Belanger

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