Congress Pressured to Extend Deadline for Railroad Safety Technology

By | October 7, 2015

The head of Amtrak warned Congress that some passenger rail service outside the Northeast corridor will be suspended if lawmakers don’t extend a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to install safety technology.

“There will be significant impacts to our service and on our customers and tenant railroads,” Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman said in an Oct. 5 letter to Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. “The potential economic impacts would also be substantial.”

The Senate included an extension in broader transportation legislation that is stalled. House transportation leaders last week introduced a standalone bill, H.R. 3651, to extend the deadline for three years. Negotiations between the House and Senate are under way and the key lawmakers involved say they’re trying to get legislation to President Barack Obama’s desk this month.

Under current law, railroads have until Dec. 31 to install technology that can automatically slow or stop trains to prevent crashes. Known as positive train control, the technology is installed on trains and rail infrastructure. Amtrak, the U.S. long-distance passenger railroad, and other rail operators have long said they can’t meet the deadline to install it in all the areas it’s required, including on all passenger routes and on areas where the most hazardous of materials move.

2008 Law

The White House hasn’t said whether it will sign an extension and has stayed out of pushing Congress to pass one. A 2008 law, passed after a deadly Los Angeles rail crash, mandated positive train control and gave railroads seven years to get it installed. Railroads have long said they couldn’t do that and ramped up their calls for an extension in 2013 when the Federal Communications Commission halted installation of PTC, saying more regulatory approval was required.

Investigators have said the technology could have prevented an Amtrak crash in May in Philadelphia that killed eight people when a train sped into a curve, exceeding the speed limit.

The Association of American Railroads, whose members include freight operators and Amtrak, “has reached out to myriad entities, including the White House, to share our concerns about a potential rail service shutdown and possible consequences affecting freight and passenger traffic if the PTC deadline is not extended,” spokeswoman Patti Reilly said.

The association has asked Congress to delay the implementation requirement to 2018 and to give railroads two more years for the system to be fully operational. According to the group, only 31 percent of locomotives will have the necessary technology by Dec. 31 and only 27 percent of employees will be trained to use it. Railroads have spent about $5.1 billion so far on the mandate, the group said in a fact sheet it distributed to lawmakers.

Keeping Up Pressure

Supporters of the mandate, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, say railroads have had enough time already.

“Extensions should be granted only to railroads that have demonstrated diligent, good faith efforts to meet the mandate,” he said in a Sept. 30 statement after the House extension measure was introduced. “Only by holding railroads’ feet to the fire will this critical, life-saving technology finally be implemented.”

Amtrak has said it can meet the current deadline for most of the track it owns, which includes the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. But a majority of passenger train routes are on track owned by freight railroads, and the freight companies say they are unable to install the equipment by Dec. 31.

Amtrak plans to activate PTC on all parts of the Northeast Corridor that it controls by Dec. 31, Christina Leeds, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said.

Union Pacific Corp., the largest U.S. freight railroad, is among the rail operators that have asked for an extension. It said in a Sept. 9 letter to Thune that it would stop shipments of chemicals including chlorine, used to purify water, and anhydrous ammonia, used in fertilizer, if the deadline stays put.

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