On March 1, 2018, the Assistant Inspector General for Surface Transportation Audits testified before the Senate on the implementation of positive train control (PTC), an advanced communication-based technology designed to prevent certain rail accidents caused by human error. Congress requires all eligible rail systems to install PTC by the end of 2018, although that deadline could be extended an additional 2 years. The testimony addressed OIG’s ongoing work in this area, specifically (1) the amount of Federal financial assistance for PTC implementation and the types of projects, (2) the Department’s oversight of the Federal funds invested in PTC projects, and (3) key funding challenges and concerns as rail systems implement PTC.

To date, DOT has provided approximately $2.9 billion toward PTC implementation. However, OIG focused on the $2.3 billion obligated as of September 30, 2017—the actual amount available to recipients for expenditure. Of this amount, the Department has obligated $1.3 billion through various Federal grants, and the Build America Bureau issued approximately $1 billion through a loan. 

The Assistant Inspector General explained that PTC projects vary greatly based on the type of railroad, the need for interoperability, and available communication systems. The Department’s financial oversight also varies, based on funding sources and other factors, with each organization following its own established oversight mechanisms. Our review noted that the Department’s financial and grant management systems do not always provide the detail necessary to identify PTC-specific costs. Instead DOT relies on the rail systems to provide accurate information. Furthermore, only a few funding recipients have used all of their PTC funds. Some funding recipients are concerned about potential shortfalls in funding to operate and maintain PTC, which could result in funds being shifted from other safety priorities. These will be key watch items for the Department and Congress—as rail systems move forward with PTC implementation—to maintain a sense of urgency and ensure that there are no negative effects on safety despite the improvements that PTC can deliver.