Railroads launch automated train shutdown clock

Railroads launch automated train shutdown clock
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The group in Washington that lobbies for freight rail companies has launched a countdown clock to a "rail shutdown" if Congress does not extend a deadline for automating most of the nation's trains.

Railroads currently have until Dec. 31 to install an automated navigation system known as Positive Train Control, which regulates the speed and track movements of trains. But several rail companies have warned they will shut down service in January 2016 to avoid fines if the deadline is not moved.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) said Thursday there are 28 days left until a potential service interruption because "train systems cannot be shut down or restarted overnight."   

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"Railroads have warned for years that the December 31 deadline for implementing positive train control (PTC) was impossible to meet,"  the group said in a post on its website.

"Railroads have spent nearly $6 billion and hired thousands of workers to install this state-of-the-art technology, but without congressional action, railroads will have little choice but to shut down or severely limit rail traffic," the post continued. "Disruptions would negatively impact the U.S. economy and affect everyone, including farmers, manufacturers, consumers, water treatment facilities, rail passengers, energy companies, government agencies and beyond!" 

The mandate was set in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California, but railroads say they need more time to complete the implementation. 

Rail companies have argued that they will have no choice but to shut down service at the beginning of next year to avoid fines if Congress does not move the deadline. 

A bipartisan measure has been introduced in the House that would push back the deadline for most railroads to install the automated train technology until December 2018. Critics have complained the measure is a "blanket extension" that lets railroads off the hook for improving safety for passengers, however. 

"It has been more than 45 years since the National Transportation Safety Board first urged railroads to implement positive train control — an unacceptable delay in implementation of this critical, life-saving technology that has allowed numerous, preventable tragedies," Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard (Dick) BlumenthalSenators push FTC to finalize changes to contact lens rule Trump rule change ignites safety debate Blumenthal: ‘No question’ evidence connects Manafort with criminal wrongdoing MORE (D-Conn.) said in a statement after the House measure was introduced. 

"Extensions should be granted only to railroads that have demonstrated diligent, good faith efforts to meet the mandate," he continued. "Only by holding railroads’ feet to the fire will this critical, life-saving technology finally be implemented.”

Supporters of the extension say it is necessary to prevent an interruption in passenger and freight rail service at the end of the year, however. 

"Completion of the Positive Train Control mandate by the end of the year is not achievable, and extending the deadline is essential to preventing significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said in a statement trumpeting the extension.  

“Railroads must implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner, and we need to give them the necessary time to do so," he continued. 

Transportation Department officials in the Obama administration have said they have little choice but to enforce the mandate unless Congress can come to agreement on an extension. 

"The reality is without Congress doing something, we've got a deadline coming up and we're going to have to enforce that deadline," Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxWeek ahead in tech: Lawmakers turn focus to self-driving cars Six contenders to be Uber's new CEO Obama’s Transportation chief given Super Bowl tickets by Hollywood studio exec MORE told reporters earlier this week. 

"Many of the concerns [railroads] raise appear to be legitimate concerns, but as far as we're concerned, the deadline at present is what it is and we have to enforce against it, absent some congressional action," Foxx continued.