Crash revives push for automated trains

This week’s deadly Amtrak derailment is sparking fresh calls for automated trains on the nation’s rails, even as industry groups press for an extension of this year’s deadline to implement the technology.

Railroads have until December to install positive train control (PTC) under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.  But just six weeks before Tuesday’s wreck, which killed eight people, the GOP-led Senate Commerce Committee approved a measure pushing the deadline to the end of 2020.

After Tuesday’s crash, Democrats wasted little time criticizing Republicans for the effort to delay the automated train mandate.

“The Amtrak disaster shows why we must install Positive Train Control technology as soon as possible,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who sponsored the original legislation containing the 2015 mandate, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

“We need to ensure that railroads are held accountable and are working quickly to adopt this life-saving technology,” she added. “That is why I oppose efforts to give railroads an unconditional five-year waiver from the PTC requirements in the 2008 Feinstein-Boxer law.”

The Association of American Railroads, which has lobbied for the PTC extension, contends they’ve devoted massive amounts of money and resources to install the technology on more than 60,000 miles of track. But the industry group is calling on Congress for more time.

“PTC is an unprecedented technical and operational challenge,” the group, which represents freight rail companies, says on its website. “Despite railroads’ best efforts, various technical and non-technical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sponsored the extension measure, which passed the Commerce Committee in late March, although Republicans note he had several Democratic co-sponsors, including Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

Blunt is showing no signs of backing away from his position that the deadline is unrealistic and should be extended.

“We’ve heard several times from DOT and GAO and others that PTC faces significant implementation hurdles to meeting the end of the year deadline,” Blunt said in a statement provided to The Hill. “We think PTC is a good thing that will increase safety, and we are working diligently in a bipartisan way on the committee to make this sure this happens in the most prudent way.”

Blunt said his “thoughts and prayers” were with victims and said Congress would examine the investigation’s findings.

“One of the key aspects we’ll be wanting to take a good look at as we address rail legislation is what happened with the accident, why it happened, and what we need to do to see that it doesn’t happen again,” he said.  

Blunt’s office added that Amtrak officials have said they are on track to meet the 2015 deadline in the Northeast Corridor, home to its most popular routes and the site of Tuesday’s crash.

The installation is said to be easier in the Northeast because Amtrak tracks there are already operating on a signal basis, compared to the rest of the country, where trains rely on radio communications and cell towers for navigation.

Investigators, however, have said the automated train navigation system could have prevented Tuesday’s crash, which occurred after the train reached speeds in excess of 100 mph, roughly double the allowed limit. 

During a Thursday interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said PTC technology would be preferable to a requiring a second engineer in the locomotive cab.

“That is a system that’s designed to protect against human error,” Sumwalt said of the automated train technology. “If the error occurs, then the positive train control will kick in and control the speed of the train.”

Republicans moved Thursday to blunt the Democratic efforts to link the Amtrak crash the effort to the delay in the automated train mandate. They also sought to beat back criticism of separate vote Wednesday, when the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation approved a $200 million cut to Amtrak’s.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) lashed back against those assertions Thursday, calling it “stupid” to suggest the Amtrak crash was linked to funding.

“Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?” Boehner interjected after a reporter began asking him about transportation funding cuts.

“Adequate funds were there,” he said, adding that no money has been cut from rail safety programs.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded late Thursday, issuing a statement deriding Boehner’s comments as “patently false.”

Experts have made clear that positive train control could have prevented the tragedy in Philadelphia,” Schumer said. “It is simply a fact that insufficient funding for Amtrak has delayed the installation of PTC, and to deny a connection between the accident and underfunding Amtrak is to deny reality.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile noted that Republicans, in Wednesday’s subcommittee markup, blocked a Democratic amendment to boost funding for the automated positive train control system.

“Our … amendment [from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)] to fund the positive train control, which some have said could have prevented what happened night before last, that was — the DeLauro amendment would have funded positive train control at the president’s budget level, $825 million,” she said. “That was voted down.”

Pelosi vowed to fight the push to extend the deadline in light of the Amtrak crash.

“There are some in the Congress who were saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to push that date five years farther into the future,’ ” she said. “We have to resist that. We must try to get the positive train control.” 

— This story was updated at 12:08 p.m.

Tags Barbara Boxer Bill Nelson Boehner Charles Schumer Claire McCaskill Dianne Feinstein John Boehner Roy Blunt
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