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Retailers urge Senate to pass automated train extension

Retailers urge Senate to pass automated train extension
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The National Retail Federation (NRF) is urging the Senate to pass an extension for federal highway funding and a deadline for a new automated train system that was approved by the House on Tuesday. 

The House voted to approve a measure to extend both federal transportation funding — currently set to expire on Thursday — for three weeks in an effort to prevent a highway funding stoppage.   

The highway bill also includes a provision that moves a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to install an automated train navigation system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) to the end of 2018 in an attempt to avoid a partial railway shutdown.

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The Retail Federation said Wednesday the Senate should follow suit and quickly pass the extension of both federal transportation funding and the automated train deadline. 

"This bill is critical to provide a short-term extension of funding for surface transportation programs beyond October 29. It also includes an important extension for the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) for the railroads," said David French, the group's senior vice president of government relations, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP Senate candidate: Kavanaugh 'debacle' 'hugely motivating' to Missouri voters Trump praises McConnell: He ‘stared down the angry left-wing mob’ to get Kavanaugh confirmed Murkowski not worried about a Palin challenge MORE (R-Ky.). 

"While we strongly support the safety requirements of PTC technology, this extension is needed to ensure the Class I railroads, especially freight rail, are able to continue to operate without disruption," French continued. Freight rail is an integral part of a retailer’s supply chain." 

The December deadline for railroads to install the automated Positive Train Control system was set under a law passed in the aftermath of a 2008 commuter rail crash in California. The system, which regulates the speed and track movements of trains, has been touted as a game changer for train safety, but railroads have complained it is difficult to implement. 

Under the legislation approved by the House on Tuesday, railroads would have an extra three years to work on the automated train conversion. They will also have the option of requesting an extra two years to work on the installation if they submit plans for doing the work by Dec. 31, 2018. The requests would have to be approved by the Department of Transportation on a case-by-case basis.  

Critics have complained the agreement will result in a "blanket" extension for railroads to install technology that has been touted as a life-saver that can prevent deadly train accidents.

The Retail Federation said Wednesday that preventing a railway shutdown is vitally important to their industry, however. 

"Retailers are now in the final phases of their peak shipping season for holiday merchandise," French wrote. "Retailers and other industries have already suffered through one supply chain disaster this year with the slowdowns at the West Coast ports. Any disruption of the freight rail system will once again have wide ranging impacts on retailers and other freight rail customers who rely on the Class I railroads." 

French concluded that "Congress needs to act immediately to provide funding for the surface transportation programs as well as ensure rail service, especially freight rail, continues without disruption by providing an extension for PTC." 

The Senate is expected to vote on the highway funding and automated train extension as early as Wednesday afternoon.