Blumenthal: Don't push back deadline for rail safety improvements

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Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalSenate Dems push Obama for more Iran transparency Congress sends first major opioid bill to Obama's desk Opioid package clears key Senate hurdle MORE (D-Conn.) is pressing the Obama administration to hold rail companies to a December deadline for automating trains, even as Congress considers a delay in the mandate. 

Railroads currently have until Dec. 31 to install an automated train navigation system known as Positive Train Control (PTC), which regulates the speed and track movements of trains. 

A highway funding bill approved last month by the Senate, however, included a provision that would extend a federal deadline for railroad companies to install PTC. 

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Blumenthal, who has been vocal about not extending the deadline, said Wednesday the Federal Railroad Administration should press ahead with enforcement of the mandate until both chambers pass a law that includes the delay. 

"Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released a study revealing that most of our country’s railroads will fail to meet the December 31, 2015 deadline for implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology," he wrote. "These widespread, indefinite delays are deeply disturbing. 

"Railroads need to be held accountable for their deliberate or negligent failure to comply with an existing legal deadline," Blumenthal continued. "Unfortunately, FRA’s report provides little new information on how your agency — the agency responsible for safety oversight — plans to discipline railroads that fail to comply with existing deadlines. Instead, the report provides a general schedule of fines, notes that FRA has discretion in their implementation, and just vaguely cautions that penalties 'could' be 'substantial.'" 

The December deadline for automated trains on most of the nation's commuter and freight railroads was set under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.

The effort in Congress to delay the deadline at the behest of rail companies has become controversial because of an Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May that killed eight passengers. The industry has argued the December deadline is an underfunded mandate that is too expensive to meet. 

The Senate highway bill changes the mandate for railroad companies to implement PTC to a requirement that they submit plans by Dec. 31 for installing the technology in the near future. Senators had previously pushed to delay the deadline entirely until 2020, but they relented after the Amtrak crash renewed debate in Washington about U.S. rail safety. 

Supporters of delaying the automated deadline have noted that most of the nation's railroad companies have said they will not make the deadline, whether it is pushed back or not. 

“Let’s recognize that commuter rail systems, including New Jersey Transit and Virginia Railway Express, have stated that they will not meet the federal deadline for implementing Positive Train Control technology,” Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneFCC chief pushes phone companies to offer free robocall blocking How the new aviation law will affect your travel GOP chairman seeks answers about Tesla’s autopilot feature MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during a floor debate in July about the highway bill.

“This legislation currently before the Senate would authorize grants and prioritizes loan applications to help commuter railroads deploy this new technology to help address safety issues and get Positive Train Control up and running as soon as possible,” Thune continued. 

Thune office notes that Blumenthal has cosponsored legislation that would also delay the automated train deadline. The separate measure, sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinsten (D-Calif.), would only grant railroads a one year extension on the PTC deadline on a case-by-case basis, however. 

Blumenthal said Wednesday the railroad administration should "demonstrate that willful or even negligent failure to set deadlines and meet them will have meaningful consequences," while the debate about extending the deadline is still being hashed out. 

"Railroads must have clear incentive to implement PTC by the December 31 deadline — which remains current law, despite ongoing debate in Congress," he said. "The disciplinary regimen must be real and realistic with a penalty approach that recognizes good faith efforts and punishes intentional violations. 

"The penalties you impose must be stiff and severe to properly sanction inaction," Blumenthal continued. "They should be more than in effect the cost of doing business for railroads, allowing continued delay, death and injury."   

-This story was updated at 5:42 p.m.