Railroads years behind schedule on automating trains

Railroads years behind schedule on automating trains
© Getty Images

Most major railroads are one to five years behind schedule on automating trains, which they are mandated to do by the end of the year, according to report from the Government Accountability Office that was released on Wednesday. 

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. 


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.

Lawmakers have moved to extend the federal deadline for railroad companies to install PTC, but the effort stalled after a deadly Philadelphia Amtrak crash in May that killed multiple passengers.

The GAO revealed Wednesday that two-thirds of the railroads they reviewed have said they will not complete the installation of the train automation technology before the looming deadline. 

"Most railroads in GAO’s review (20 of 29) estimate that they will implement positive train control (PTC) — a communications-based system designed to prevent certain types of train accidents — 1 to 5 years after the statutory deadline of December 31, 2015 (3 did not have an estimated completion date)," the GAO said in a report. 

Another railroad was exempted from the requirement, while five railroads expected to meet the deadline may be affected by the fact that other railroads won't be ready. 

The GAO said the "ability of these five railroads to fully operate with PTC may be affected because other railroads that operate equipment on their tracks — known as tenants — or that own tracks that they operate on — known as hosts — may not be equipped with PTC."

"In addition, the ability of railroads to meet the deadline may be affected by the interoperability of their PTC system with those of other railroads and whether they can obtain final system approval from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)."

Supporters of moving the automated train deadline said the report showed the need for granting railroads an extension of the mandate before the end of the year. 

“Passenger and freight railroads need time beyond the current deadline to finish implementation of a complex system that relies on new technology,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneManchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Manchin-McConnell meet amid new voting rights push Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

“Failure to extend this legal deadline would create significant hardships for customers and passengers who rely on railroads," Thune continued. "Passing an extension that includes meaningful accountability for PTC implementation is the best thing Congress can do to enhance safety and avert a chaotic situation that would hurt our economy much more than the recent West Coast ports backup.”

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. 

Safety advocates have pressed the Obama administration to enforce the mandate as it was originally written, citing the deadly Amtrak crash earlier this year. 

"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 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." 

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." 

The GAO said Wednesday that Congress should try to find a way to address both the safety and implementation concerns. 

"GAO recommends that FRA develop a plan that outlines how the agency will hold railroads accountable for making continued progress toward the full implementation of PTC by, among other things, collecting any additional information needed to track progress of individual railroads," the group said.