Lawmakers, feds trade blame over difficulty in automating trains

Lawmakers, feds trade blame over difficulty in automating trains

Lawmakers and railway regulators in the Obama administration spent hours Wednesday trading blame for the likelihood that most of nation's railways will miss a December deadline to automate passenger and freight trains. 

Railroads currently have until Dec. 31 to install the positive train control (PTC) system, which regulates the speed and track movements of trains, under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.

Lawmakers had moved to push back the deadline earlier this year before a deadly crash on Amtrak in May revived debate about the mandate. 

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Lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in both parties questioned Wednesday whether the Obama administration has done enough to help rail companies meet the deadline — and how they will enforce penalties for missing it. 

"The industry itself has spent over $5 billion on positive train control and … I don't think that the administration have done all they need to do to move us forward," said Rep. Corrine BrownCorrine BrownFormer Florida rep sentenced to five years in prison for fraud, tax evasion Genuine veteran charities face a challenge beating the fakes Former Florida rep found guilty of tax evasion, fraud MORE (D-Fla.), whose district is home to freight rail company CSX.

"And to sit here and say that we are going to to have daily fines and we may have to shut down the industry," she continued. "It's not going to fly." 

Republicans on the panel joined in the criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the automated train mandate, questioning how penalties will be enforced if the deadline is not moved back.  

"If you go and end up levying fines against people, levying on a daily basis, monthly, weekly, how would you levy those?" Rep. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterEx-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm Anti-corruption group hits Congress for ignoring K Street, Capitol Hill 'revolving door' Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties MORE (R-Pa.), who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, asked Acting Federal Railroad Administration Chief Sarah Feinberg

Feinberg defended the Obama administration's efforts to help rail companies meet the deadline and said she is not in favor of pushing back the deadline because it is ensconced in federal law. 

"I can only speak for this administration; I can't speak for previous administrations," she responded to Brown. "But this administration has done a great deal to try to bring railroads along and into compliance with a mandate that was passed by the Congress in 2008, and we have been sounding the alarm for years about our concern that railroads were not going to meet the deadline." 

Feinberg said she is simply following a law that was passed by lawmakers, even as they flooded her with complaints about its impact. 

"It's your deadline," she said. "It's the Congress' deadline. … I believe it a good deadline, and in fact it was the deadline that was reached during negotiations." 

Rail companies that were testifying alongside Feinberg on Wednesday argued the deadline was well-intentioned, but they said they have run into real-world obstacles that have complicated its implementation. 

"It doesn't matter how big the bear chasing you is, or how big the big cattle prod is; if you're running as fast as you can you can, you can't run any faster," CSX Transportation Vice President of Service and Design Frank Lonegro said. 

"And so the fine … we spent $1 billion; we got a thousand people working on a project, it's hard to say that we haven't put the best foot forward that we possibly you could," he continued. 

Donald Orseno, Chief Executive Officer of the Illinois Metra Commuter Railroad, added that money spend paying fines for missing the December deadline could be used to continue implementing the PTC automated train system.  

"I don't think, personally, it would be in the public's best interest to fine railroads that typically don't have the funding to implement PTC," he said. "I think we need to find a solution where we can implement PTC as expeditiously as possible and not fine the railroads because it's just coming, you know, right out of our pot that we use for, you know, bridges and cars and everything else it takes to — to operate the railroad." 

Lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee questioned the Obama administration's instance on sticking with the deadline in the face of testimony from the railroad industry that it is too difficult to meet. 

"Let me ask you about the arbitrary … deadline," Rep. Scott PerryScott Gordon PerryThe Hill's Morning Report — DOJ's planned executions stir new debate Conservatives call on Pelosi to cancel August recess Conservatives ask Barr to lay out Trump's rationale for census question MORE (R-Pa.) said. "Does it take into account the technical aspects, does it take into account the frequency spectrum — spectrum aspects, does it take into account the timeline where the FRA took nearly a year to approve one of the single plans, one of the plans that is required by each railroad, does it take into account those things?" 

Feinberg said lawmakers would have to pass an extension of the deadline themselves if they wanted to push it back because she is bound by law to enforce it as long as it on the books. 

"I take my cues form the Congress and I enforce what the Congress mandates," she said. "So if the Congress instructs us to enter negotiations like that we would do that.But again my concern would be entering into brand new negotiations with each individual railroad based on what they would like their new deadline to be."