Dems rail against automated train extension

Senate Democrats are railing against an extension of a deadline for automating trains on most of the nation's railways that was approved by Congress this week, over the objection of safety advocates. 

The House and Senate voted on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, to move a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to install an automated train navigation system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) to the end of 2018 in an attempt to avoid a partial railway shutdown. 

Railroads had threatened to partially shut down passenger and freight train service at the end of the year to avoid fines for not completing the converison to automation without the extension. Congress responded to the pressure by including the extension in a measure to reauthorize federal transportation funding that was set to expire on Thursday until Nov. 20.

The highway funding measure that now has the automated train extension tacked on goes now to President Obama's desk, who is expected to sign the bill to keep federal road funding flowing.   

Democrats in the Senate said the inclusion of the automated train deadline extension in the temporary highway bill was misguided. 

"This measure is a lose-lose, an avoidable and abysmal delay in life-saving technology for our railroads and an inadequate extension of highway and road funding," Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalOvernight Healthcare: Biden hints at new money for cancer research | Trump details opioid plan | Dem urges feds to reject EpiPen settlement Dem calls on DOJ to reject EpiPen settlement Why Yahoo's breach could turn the SEC into a cybersecurity tiger MORE (D-Conn.) said in a statement after the extension was approved. 

"I will fight for aggressive implementation of the new deadlines for PTC to help save the costs in dollars and lives that may result from continuing collisions, derailments, and other preventable catastrophes," he continued. "One expert noted that ‘PTC is the most important rail safety advancement of our time’ — and the U.S. Senate today chose to delay it by five years.”

The December deadline for railroads to install the automated Positive Train Control system was set under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California. 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 legislation approved by the Senate on Wednesday, railroads will have an extra three years to work on the automated train conversion. They will also have the option of requesting an additional 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.  

Supporters of the automated train extension said it is necessary to give railroads more time to install the PTC system to prevent an interruption in the nation's rail service during the upcoming busy holiday season. 

"This legislation averts what would have been a catastrophic shutdown of railroad service while putting accountability provisions in place to ensure that implementation of Positive Train Control moves forward," said Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneWhat will be in Obama’s Presidential Library GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Republicans question FCC watchdog's 'independence' MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation committee. 

"I urge the president to sign this bipartisan, bicameral measure into law as soon as possible to end the uncertainty surrounding the looming deadline for rail passengers and shippers across the country," Thune continued. "After two years of intensive oversight work from the Senate Commerce Committee, I am pleased the Congress came together to pass a tough, bipartisan and accountability-focused measure to ensure that we never need another extension.”

Rail industry groups praised lawmakers for heeding their warnings about the necessity for an extension of the automated train system. 

"Members of the House and Senate are to be commended for taking the responsible action to extend the PTC deadline," Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger said in a statement. 

"This provides the certainty American industries and businesses need to serve the millions of Americans who rely on rail every day," Hamberger continued. "The extension means freight and passenger railroads can continue moving forward with the ongoing development, installation, real-world testing and validation of this complex technology."

Democrats in the Senate, meanwhile, promised to continuing fighting for the automated train system under the new 2018 mandate.  

"I want to express my disappointment that I was unable to shorten the delay of the Positive Train Control safety mandate on railroads," Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerCalifornia House Republicans facing tougher headwinds House and Senate water bills face billion difference Boxer, Feinstein endorse Kamala Harris in two-Dem Senate race MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement after the vote on Thursday. 

"My colleagues and I will continue to shine a spotlight to ensure that PTC is implemented properly within the new timeframe," she continued.