Rail companies are threatening to shut down passenger and freight train service at the beginning of next year if Congress does not extend a federal deadline for automating trains that most railroads say they won't be able to meet.
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. Several companies have already said they will shut down service in January 2016 to avoid fines for not meeting the deadline.
Advocates for the industry in Congress have called for an extension of the deadline, but rail regulators in the Obama administration say their hands are tied unless Congress passes an extension of the mandate.
"There are many railroads that making a good faith effort and we believe have been working diligently toward PTC implementation, but the law and the statute and the deadline is very black and white and in our read does not give flexibility to railroads that are acting diligently and railroads who are not," Acting Federal Railroad Administration chief Sarah Feinberg told lawmakers this week during a confirmation hearing for her appointment to the position on a full-time basis.
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.
A report from the General Accountability Office revealed this week that two-thirds of 29 major railroads that were reviewed have said they will not complete the installation of the train automation technology before the looming deadline.
Supporters of extending the deadline have sounded the alarm about a potential shutdown of the nation's train service as the deadline grows near.
"I believe, absent Congressional action, we will begin to see the effects of the deadline four to six weeks prior to the December 31st deadline as railroads begin to cycle traffic off their lines," Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSchumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during Feinberg's confirmation hearing.
“This is a looming economic and safety disaster that is completely avoidable," he continued.
Feinberg told lawmakers she had little choice but to enforce the law they passed, even as they held the fate of her confirmation to the full-time position atop the railroad agency in their hands.
"We will enforce the law as of the deadline of Dec. 31, so on Jan. 1 we will enforce the deadline and the law," she said.
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.
"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,” National Association of Railroad Passengers President Jim Mathews said in a statement.
The GAO has also recommended that Congress try to find a way to address both the safety and implementation concerns with the automated train deadline.
"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.
Advocates of enforcing the automated train deadline have said an extension would let railroads off the hook for improving safety on their tracks, however.
"Any deadline extension must be granted based on need and upon proof that all efforts are being made to install PTC technology as quickly as possible," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement after the GAO report was released.
“Many of the railroads who will not meet the deadline are now threatening to stop service and shut down the economy if the deadline isn’t pushed back—an intolerable and unacceptable position that should not be rewarded,” he continued.
Rail groups in Washington said their inability to meet the automated train deadline is not caused by a lack of effort.
"The [PTC compliance] report supports what the industry, the Federal Railroad Administration and the GAO have said in the past: significant challenges of technology, spectrum, and funding make the end of year deadline unattainable," American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President Michael Melaniphy said this week.
"These challenges still remain and APTA has shared the specific challenges commuter railroads are facing with the Senate and House Committee leaders," he continued. "We support efforts in Congress to craft an extension that would provide for the full effective interoperable implementation of this life-saving technology."