Visit our in-depth investigative coverage package for more on the history and technology behind Positive Train Control.
New technologies need champions and in the 1980s, Positive
Train Control (PTC) found one in Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) R&D
Director Steve Ditmeyer.
Ditmeyer and other BN executives pioneered the development
of ARES (Advanced Railroad Electronics System), a PTC system that promised to
thrust the railroad into the digital age. The idea first came to BN CEO Richard
Bressler who recruited Ditmeyer to establish an R&D department.
"He had been flying around in the corporate plane in the
early â80s, reading about new generations of avionics and how they improved
flight safety and efficiency. Bressler was an engineer and he hired me from the
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to investigate the new technology for
BN," recalls Ditmeyer, an industrial engineer and economist.
Indeed, ARES was modeled like an air traffic control system
and was based on the avionics developed by Rockwell Collins for the
then-new Boeing 757 and 767 jetliners. After a successful demo in 1985, a
prototype system was launched over a 250-mile stretch of track in north Minnesota's Iron
Range in 1987.
"It worked as advertised for five years. It always worked
consistently," says Ditmeyer.
TRAINS magazine columnist and veteran transportation writer
Don Phillips remembers when BN brought the media to the Iron Range
for a demonstration. Specifically, he recalled a BN executive ordering a
locomotive engineer to attempt going through a red signal. Knowing the rules,
the engineer refused unless some higher up gave him the order in front of
"The engineer was dubious as hell. I don't think he trusted
the technology," says Phillips. "The train never reached the signal. He tried
to start up again and the train started to creep and let him go 10 feet and
shut him down again. It was impressive."
By 1989, the ARES prototype was deemed a success. Trains
could reliably be located in real time by GPS run against a Geographical Information
System (GIS). Communications between locomotives, dispatcher and trackside
devices were carried over BN's extensive microwave and radio networks. And PTC
trains would be stopped automatically if the engineer exceeded speed limits and
violated track authority.
It was decided to study the possibility of a much larger
$350-million rollout covering BN's main route from Minneapolis
to Seattle. At
$80K per locomotive, the cost was steep even for a railroad with $4.6 billion
in revenues. Locomotive equipment constituted 60 percent of the cost with the
rest evenly split between trackside communications and dispatching centers.
The national passenger railroad Amtrak under railroading
executive legend Graham Claytor also supported the project and agreed to deploy
the system on Amtrak locomotives that ran over BN's rails as well as from
Porter, IN, to Kalamazoo, MI.
"Claytor, also a former Deputy Secretary of Defense, grasped
its (significance) immediately. It wasn't a sell to him," says Ditmeyer.
Indeed, all BN and Amtrak locomotives running between the Twin
Cities and Seattle would be PTC equipped. In all, ARES
would cover 2,700 miles of track with three advanced control centers, 90 base
radios, 491 wayside interface units and equip 540 locomotives.
Hesitancy to invest in the expanded ARES could be found
everywhere in numerous consulting reports that weighed costs and benefits. In a
1990 Harvard Business School
study, BN CEO Gerald Grinstein expressed concern about BN going it alone when
other railroads were working a competing system called Advanced Train Control
What's more, BN was retiring debt which consumed resources
and among its top executives was deep concern that the cost might have been
underestimated. Uncertainty over the benefits also pervaded the discussion.
ARES could safely put trains on the system, but how many dollars that would
generate was unclear. Executives wanted guarantees and of course, there never
is with bleeding-edge technology. ARES also expansively altered train
operations, not just the signaling and dispatching, and that intimidated some
railroaders in an industry whose resistance to change is the stuff of legends.
Alas, the ARES prototype in the Iron Range
was shut off in 1993.
Ditmeyer believes the decision boiled down to the differing
priorities of two CEOs. During his tenure, Bressler championed new technology
while his successor Gerald Grinstein had different priorities. However, ARES
got far enough along for Amtrak and BN to publish a glossy ARES brochure
showing Claytor and Grinstein shaking hands and a development timeline.
Countless lost dollars, accidents and deaths later, America's
railroads save about 250 miles in the Northeast Corridor still do not have PTC.
"I'm appalled that [Chatsworth] occurred. My friends and I
ask: "Is this the accident that finally makes Congress make the railroads
install PTC?" says Ditmeyer, now semi-retired and an adjunct professor at Michigan State University's
Railway Management Program.