Lawmakers agree to extend automated train deadline by 3 years

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Lawmakers in the House and Senate have reached an agreement to extend for three years a federal deadline for a new automated train system, possibly avoiding a partial railway shutdown.

The agreement calls for moving a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to install an automated train navigation system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) to the end of 2018 at the earliest. The system, which regulates the speed and track movements of trains, has been touted as a game changer for train safety, but railroads have complained it is difficult to implement. 

Under the new agreement, railroads would have an extra three years to work on the automated train conversion. They will also have the option of requesting an extra two years to work on the installation if they submit plans for doing the work by Dec. 31, 2018. The requests would have to be approved by the Department of Transportation on a case-by-case basis.  

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Critics have complained the agreement will result in a "blanket five-year" extension for railroads to install technology that has been touted as a life-saver that can prevent deadly train accidents. 

The extension will be added to a highway funding bill that is being considered this week by the House, according to officials with the chamber's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

"The #STRR Act includes language bridging the House & Senate approaches to extending #PTC implementation deadline," the panel tweeted about the highway bill, which is known as the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015. 

The December deadline for automated trains was set under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.

Lawmakers have moved to extend the deadline at the behest of freight and commuter rail companies, but the effort stalled after a deadly Philadelphia Amtrak crash in May that killed eight passengers.

A highway funding bill that was passed by the Senate in July included language that would change the mandate for railroad companies to implement the automated train system by year's end to a requirement that they submit plans by that date for installing the technology in the near future.

The House, meanwhile, had introduced a bill in the lower chamber that would push back the deadline for most railroads to install automated train technology until December 2018. The House measure would have also allowed the Transportation Department to grant exemptions to the automated train deadline beyond 2018 to individual rail companies on a case-by-case basis. 

The provisions that have been added to the highway bill are being touted as a compromise between the two chambers' approaches to the automated train extension. 

Critics of giving railroads more time to implement the automated train system are unimpressed with the details of the compromise proposal. 

"This five year extension of life-saving technology is way too long, with way too little guarantee that PTC implementation will get done," Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense Senate Dems push Obama for more Iran transparency Congress sends first major opioid bill to Obama's desk MORE (D-Conn.) said in a statement. 

"A short-term patch of highway funding should not be the vehicle for such a profoundly important measure," he continued. "I will work for a reasonable measure that provides adequate time but holds railroads accountable through year-by-year review of progress toward fully-implemented PTC.”

Lawmakers have been feeling pressure to move the automated train deadline because several railroad companies, including Amtrak, have threatened to shut down service at the end of the year unless Congress relents on the mandate.

“If Congress fails to extend the deadline, freight and passenger railroads may have little choice but to suspend commuter service and sharply curtail freight shipments,” the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and the Association of American Railroads (AAR) said this week. “This would affect the 26 commuter rail systems providing 1.7 million trips daily and 90 freight railroads that provide essential goods to communities across the country.” 

Supporters of extending the deadline have cited the threats of a shutdown of the nation's train services.

"I believe, absent Congressional action, we will begin to see the effects of the deadline four to six weeks prior to the December 31st deadline as railroads begin to cycle traffic off their lines," Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneTim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense FCC chief pushes phone companies to offer free robocall blocking How the new aviation law will affect your travel MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during a recent confirmation hearing for the Federal Railroad Administration's Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg. 

Critics such as Blumenthal, meanwhile, have complained that a "blanket extension" of the automated train deadline lets railroads off the hook for improving safety for passengers. 

"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," Blumenthal said in a statement after the House PTC extension measure was introduced in September.

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

Transportation Department officials in the Obama administration have told lawmakers they have little choice but to enforce the law that Congress passed.

"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 Foxx told reporters earlier this month.