Railroads ramp up shutdown threats

Railroads ramp up shutdown threats

Railroads are ramping up pressure on Congress to extend a federal deadline for automating trains on most of the nation’s railways, warning they will have to shut down service at the end of the year unless lawmakers relent on the mandate.  

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Rail companies 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 railroads, including Amtrak, have threatened to at least partially shut down service in January if the automated train deadline is not moved. 

The Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association and the Association of American Railroads plan to hold a conference call with leaders from Chicago’s Metra and Virginia’s VRE commuter railways and the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission in Stockton, Calif., on Monday to drive home the threat.

“The Dec. 31, 2015 Congressional deadline for implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) is on the verge of creating a nationwide crisis for commuter and freight railroads with severe economic consequences,” the rail groups said. 

“If Congress fails to extend the deadline, freight and passenger railroads may have little choice but to suspend commuter service and sharply curtail freight shipments,” the groups continued. “This would affect the 26 commuter rail systems providing 1.7 million trips daily and 90 freight railroads that provide essential goods to communities across the country.” 

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 and commuter rail companies, but the effort stalled after a deadly Philadelphia Amtrak crash in May that killed multiple passengers.

The APTA and AAR rail groups said their industries have faced unexpected complications implementing the automated train since the 2008 mandate was signed into law. 

“PTC is a highly complex, interconnected technology that provides automated braking and will add another layer of safety to freight and commuter operations,” the groups said.  

“Despite significant progress in installing PTC, the vast majority of railroads across the nation will not meet the federal deadline of December 31 to have PTC fully installed and certified,” they continued. “While the U.S. Senate has passed legislation extending the installation deadline, the House of Representatives has not acted yet on proposed legislation by House Leaders, called the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act (H.R. 3651).” 

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.  

Critics have complained that a "blanket extension" of the automated train deadline lets railroads off the hook for improving safety for passengers. 

"It has been more than 45 years since the National Transportation Safety Board first urged railroads to implement positive train control — an unacceptable delay in implementation of this critical, life-saving technology that has allowed numerous, preventable tragedies," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement after the House PTC extension measure was introduced. 

"Extensions should be granted only to railroads that have demonstrated diligent, good faith efforts to meet the mandate," he continued. "Only by holding railroads’ feet to the fire will this critical, life-saving technology finally be implemented.”

Passenger advocacy groups, meanwhile, 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.

"The reality is without Congress doing something, we've got a deadline coming up and we're going to have to enforce that deadline," Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxBig Dem names show little interest in Senate Lyft sues New York over new driver minimum pay law Lyft confidentially files for IPO MORE told reporters earlier this month. 

"Many of the concerns [railroads] raise appear to be legitimate concerns, but as far as we're concerned, the deadline at present is what it is and we have to enforce against it, absent some congressional action," Foxx continued.