Railroads are warning of a commuter and freight train shutdown at the end of the year unless Congress extends a deadline for automating trains on most U.S. railways that is set for the end of the year.
Railroads 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.
Freight and passenger rail companies have warned Congress that they will likely have to shut down traffic on major train corridors throughout the country unless lawmakers pass an extension of the deadline this fall.
"Without an extension of the PTC deadline ... neither passenger traffic nor chemicals Americans need and use every day, such as chlorine for drinking water, will move on the Union Pacific system by the end of 2015," Union Pacific Railroad said in a post on its website.
"We remain hopeful that Congress will pass a PTC deadline extension," the company, based in Omaha, Neb., continued. "With 10,000 customers across nearly every industry relying on us to deliver products, we are aware that any change in our operating practices would have wide reverberations across the country."
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.
A highway funding bill approved in July by the Senate included a provision that would extend the federal deadline for railroad companies to install PTC, but after the Philadelphia Amtrak crash in May that killed eight passengers, safety advocates have pressed the Obama administration to enforce the mandate as it was originally written.
"As you know, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) first urged railroads to adopt PTC technology soon after a deadly train crash killed four in Darien, Connecticut in 1969," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote in a an August letter to the Federal Railroad Administration.
"In the many decades since, this critical, life-saving technology could have prevented hundreds of other deaths and thousands of injuries," Blumenthal continued. "Railroads need to be held accountable for their deliberate or negligent failure to comply with an existing legal deadline."
Amtrak has promised to meet the deadline in its heavily traveled Northeast Corridor, where it owns the track. But the company relies on tracks owned by freight rails like Union Pacific outside of that region, as do many commuter railroads.
The Senate highway bill changes the mandate for railroad companies to implement PTC by Dec. 31 to a requirement that they submit plans 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.
Rail companies have argued the December deadline is an underfunded mandate that is too expensive to meet.
"Union Pacific is committed to implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) carefully and thoroughly to enhance the safety of both our employees and the communities where we operate trains," the company said. "We invested $1.8 billion in PTC so far and will spend another $200 million this year, with a total expected investment of $2.5 billion."
Passenger-advocacy groups have pressured Congress and rail companies to figure out a way to keep trains on the tracks at the beginning of next year.
"Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring railroads to implement PTC technology with the right goals in mind: bringing the U.S. rail system in line with global best practices and prevent future accidents that cost lives," National Association of Railroad Passengers President Jim Mathews said in a statement.
"But a lack of a predictable stream of investment meant passenger railroads faced an enormous unfunded mandate," he continued. "Now, with 2016 almost upon us and the majority of America's commuter railroads unable to meet the deadline, along with the railroads that host 72 percent of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains, we're faced with a tough dilemma about how best to proceed."
Mathews said Congress should consider accepting at least a temporary extension of the automated train deadline in order to prevent a shutdown of commuter railways, which are popular in the Northeast and Midwest.
"Let's be clear, however: anything that shifts American commuters and families off of trains and onto highways is making our nation less safe and will endanger lives," he said. "You're 17 times more likely to be killed in a car crash than a train accident, so for Congress to allow the absence of PTC to force commuters onto highways is the ultimate case of letting the perfect get in the way of the good."