Amtrak is warning Congress that it will have to shut down service on many of its long-distance train routes if lawmakers do not extend a federal deadline for automating trains.
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.
Amtrak stays it will be able to meet the deadline on most of the tracks it owns in the Northeast, but the company says it is reliant in other parts of the country on freight railroads that have already said they will shut down service in January 2016 to avoid fines for not meeting the deadline.
"Most of the 21,000-mile national network that Amtrak operates over is owned by other railroads that host our trains. The host is responsible for installation on their infrastructure," Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman wrote in a letter dated Oct. 5 to Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate committee that handles transportation issues.
"Many freight railroads have stated that they may refuse to transport certain freight and may suspend passenger service on their track that is not PTC-compliant, if the current December 31, 2015 deadline is not extended," Boardman wrote.
The December deadline for automated trains was set under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California.
Lawmakers have moved to extend the deadline at the behest of freight companies, but the effort stalled after a deadly Philadelphia Amtrak crash in May that killed multiple passengers.
Boardman said in his letter that Amtrak will have little choice but to shut down service on routes that operate on freight rail tracks, even though the company supports moving to the automated PTC train navigation system.
"Based on information that we have gathered from the hosts, Amtrak will plan on suspending service on the national network beginning mid-December on routes that are not PTC complaint or where MTEAs have not been obtained," he said, noting that "this suspension will also impact Amtrak's state supported services that operate in partnership with states across the country" such as California, Connecticut, Illinois and Virginia.
"Amtrak expects to operate Northeast Corridor services where PTC has been installed and will operate our national network of services to the extent permitted by the law and FRA," Boardman wrote. "Should Congress fail to pass legislation to extend the PTC deadline beyond December 31, 2015, there will be significant impacts to our service and our customers and tenant railroads."
Boardman told lawmakers Amtrak "will need to begin to notifying passengers through our reservation system of disruptions that may occur as a result of the PTC deadline," beginning on Dec. 1.
"The potential economic impacts would also be substantial, since a vast majority of our network would be inoperable without an extension of the deadline," he wrote. "We will work with the multitude of partners that rely on Amtrak service, from state and local partners, to commuter rail operators, to the freight railroads, to ensure that passengers and partners are aware of any disruptions that may occur."
Supporters of extending the deadline have sounded the alarm about a potential shutdown of the nation's train services.
"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," Thune, who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said during a recent confirmation hearing for Acting Federal Railroad Administration chief Sarah Feinberg.
“This is a looming economic and safety disaster that is completely avoidable," Thune continued.
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.
Transportation department officials in the Obama administration have told lawmakers they have little choice but to enforce the law that Congress passed.
"We will enforce the law as of the deadline of Dec. 31, so on Jan. 1 we will enforce the deadline and the law," Feinberg said in her confirmation hearing.