Freight railroad asks Congress to pay for safety technology in passenger trains

Freight railroad asks Congress to pay for safety technology in passenger trains
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A top freight railroad made a somewhat unusual plea to Congress on Wednesday: pay for passenger railroads to install a life-saving train technology.

BNSF Railway has been a leader in implementing positive train control (PTC), a technology that automatically slows down a train going over the speed limit and will eventually be required by law.

But Matthew Rose, executive chairman of BNSF, said Wednesday that their efforts will be futile if the passenger and commuter trains that they share tracks with aren’t also fully equipped with the technology.


“As a freight railroad, it may sound out of line, but I actually urge Congress to fund passenger commuter rail funding for positive train control,” Rose said during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee hearing. 

“I can’t imagine a more difficult train wreck for us to have to go to where we have the positive train control on the freight rail, and the passenger or commuter train didn’t because of lack of funding.”

Congress had originally given commuter and freight railroads until the end of 2015 to install the technology, which can prevent derailments, collisions, crashes and improper track switching.

But as railroads struggled to meet compliance deadlines, lawmakers pushed back the implementation date to at least Dec. 31, 2018.

Recent deadly train crashes — including a speeding New Jersey Transit train that slammed into Hoboken Terminal — have stepped up pressure on railroads to come into compliance even sooner.

Federal reports, however, show that railroads across the country have still been slow to adopt positive train control, in part because of the steep cost of the technology, though Congress has chipped in over $650 million in federal grants since 2008.

Freight rails are making more headway than passenger rails in recent months. Rose noted that BNSF tested 35,000 positive train control segments last month and 85 percent went through the system without a hitch.

He thinks BNSF’s progress can serve as model for other railroads working to implement positive train control.

“We think all the work we’re doing is getting rid of a lot of the challenges, a lot of the problems that some of the other railroads that aren’t as far as long will face,” Rose said. “We hope our hard-knock lessons will help the rest of industry.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) says he hopes “railroads across the country will take your guidance seriously.”

“Some of them may have the resources or access to funds, but still have not implemented this life-saving technology, which is hardly novel or new,” he said.