The South Shore Line is beginning testing this week on components of its federally mandated Positive Train Control system, which uses GPS-based technology to allow for automatic stopping of trains to prevent collisions, derailments and other accidents.
The nearly $100 million project involves installing PTC equipment on the South Shore's 72 cars and a diesel locomotive, along with associated wayside and headquarters equipment. The PTC system will allow a train to be stopped in case of human error.
"The new PTC technology utilizes a complex computerized set of checks and balances that will take over the operation of a train should an engineer fail to take proper action," South Shore President Michael Noland said.
Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District officials plan on completing the project by an end-of-year deadline, though the Federal Railroad Administration has established the potential for extending work through 2020 to make PTC fully operational.
The PTC project involves a variety of field tests during implementation. Initial testing will be on empty cars, and the reallocation of cars during the testing could cause "minor inconveniences" to passengers, officials said.
Forty-one major railroads across the country are implementing PTC, according to the FRA, with other smaller railroads performing upgrades to be compliant with PTC systems on tracks they use. Each railroad has undertaken its own PTC project, but the systems need to be compatible to communicate with one another, a particular challenge in an area like the Chicago region.
The Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad, a freight hauler that uses South Shore Line tracks, is spending "several million dollars" to prepare for PTC, and expects an increase in annual operating expenses of $500,000 to $1 million, railroad President Todd Bjornstad wrote in the rail line's recent newsletter.
In Illinois, Metra expects to spend as much as $400 million installing PTC equipment on its rail lines and on 367 locomotives, switch engines, cab cars and electric cars serving Chicago commuters. Its newest 160 electric cars are already PTC-compliant.
Metra has filed for an extension beyond the end of 2018 to get the system operational — a concern to the South Shore because it uses Metra Electric District tracks in Chicago. Metra has said work on the electric line will likely go into 2019.
Metra has begun announcing schedule changes necessary to increase spacing between trains, including several changes starting April 23 to its Electric Line, which runs from Millennium Station into the south suburbs.