Railroads seek automated train extension

Railroads seek automated train extension
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The group that lobbies for freight railroads in Washington is pushing for an extension of a December deadline for automating trains in the U.S. now that Congress is back in session.

Railroads currently have until Dec. 31 to install an automated train navigation system known as Positive Train Control (PTC), which regulates the speed and track movements of trains. 

A highway funding bill approved last month by the Senate, however, included a provision that would extend the federal deadline for railroad companies to install PTC. 

The Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Railroads said Tuesday that the December 2015 mandate for automating most of the nation’s trains should be extended because it “the deadline is arbitrary, unworkable and unrealistic.

“Freight railroads obligated to install PTC face an impossible choice,” the group said. “On one hand, they face regulatory fines and penalties from the FRA, while on the other hand, railroads have legal obligations as common carriers, and may have contractual obligations to provide specific services to customers, as well. 

“If they stop or reduce services to avoid being in violation of the PTC law, they may face claims or litigation related to those competing obligations to provide service,” the AAR statement continued. “Congress can provide clarity on this issue by passing the Highway Funding bill that already contains provisions to extend the PTC deadline.”

The December deadline for automated trains on most of the nation's commuter and freight railroads was set under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.

The effort in Congress to delay the deadline at the behest of rail companies has become controversial because of an Amtrak crash in Philadelphia in May that killed eight passengers. The industry has argued the December deadline is an underfunded mandate that is too expensive to meet. 

The Senate highway bill changes the mandate for railroad companies to implement PTC to a requirement that they submit plans by Dec. 31 for installing the technology in the near future. Senators had previously pushed to delay the deadline entirely until 2020, but they relented after the Amtrak crash renewed debate in Washington about U.S. rail safety. 

The AAR group said Monday that it would settle for a shorter extension if necessary as long as the deadline is pushed back from the end of the year.

“December 2018 would be a more realistic timeframe for full PTC implementation, plus two more years for nationwide testing,” the group said.

“The freight rail industry has been clear for some time that the December 31, 2015 deadline was not only unachievable, but imprudent to force deployment of an extremely complicated signaling-system technology before it has been fully developed and tested,” the industry group’s statement continued.

Supporters of the December 2015 deadline for automating the nation’s trains in Congress, who are mostly Democrats, have pushed the Obama administration to press ahead with enforcing the PTC mandate, despite the effort in Congress to delay it.

"Last [month], the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released a study revealing that most of our country’s railroads will fail to meet the December 31, 2015 deadline for implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a letter to the FRA in August.

"These widespread, indefinite delays are deeply disturbing,” Blumenthal continued. “Railroads need to be held accountable for their deliberate or negligent failure to comply with an existing legal deadline.”