Agreement on automated train extension 'very close'

Agreement on automated train extension 'very close'
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Lawmakers in the House and Senate are "very close" to reaching an agreement on extension of a federal deadline for automating trains on most of the nation’s railways, aides in the lower chamber say. 

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.  

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Several railroad service providers, including Amtrak, are pressuring Congress to move the deadline by threatening to at least partially shut down passenger and freight service in January if the automated train deadline is not extended. 

Aides in the House said Friday the chambers are nearing a bicameral agreement on such an extension amid the mounting pressure from railroads. 

"Our approaches were a little different, and what we've done is actually sit down with them over the last couple of weeks to see if there's a compromise position once again on a bipartisan basis with the Senate that we could work out," a GOP aide said, noting that the Senate has already passed an extension of the automated train mandate that would last until 2018 in an earlier highway bill. 

"We think we're very close on that. If we get to that point in the next day or so, when we introduce this [highway] bill next week, our hope is to have that Positive Train Control provision in it," the aide continued. 

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 eight passengers.

A highway funding bill that was passed by the Senate in July would change the mandate for railroad companies to implement the automated train system by year's end to a requirement that they submit plans by that date for installing the technology in the near future.

The House, meanwhile, has introduced a bill in the lower chamber that would push back the deadline for most railroads to install automated train technology until December 2018. The House measure would also allow the Transportation Department to grant exemptions to the automated train deadline beyond 2018 to individual rail companies on a case-by-case basis. 

Several railroad service providers, including Amtrak, have warned lawmakers they will have to shut down service at the end of the year unless lawmakers relent on the mandate.  

“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 Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and the Association of American Railroads (AAR) said this week. 

“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 rail 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.” 

Supporters of extending the deadline have cited the threats of a 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," John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP struggles to find backup plan for avoiding debt default GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries High anxiety hits Senate over raising debt ceiling MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, said during a recent confirmation hearing for the Federal Railroad Administration's Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg. 

“This is a looming economic and safety disaster that is completely avoidable," Thune continued.  

Critics, meanwhile, 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.”

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. 

Aides in the House expressed optimism on Friday that Congress would be able to reach an agreement on an extension soon. 

"We're having good conversations," the Republican aide said. "I'm confident that we can get something done."