Lawmakers scold railroads over delay in safety upgrades

Lawmakers scold railroads over delay in safety upgrades

A panel of lawmakers on Thursday admonished the nation’s railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to meet a fast-approaching deadline to enact a key train safety feature that could have prevented two recent Amtrak crashes. 

“If you have a timeline, we want to see that timeline. If you have questions, or concerns or impediments, we want to know what those are,” Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamFormer GOP Rep. Walters joins energy company TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties US launches national security review of Chinese-owned app TikTok: report MORE (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, told a group of railroad officials. 

“If you’ve not received funding, maybe you should request funding. But certainly ignoring a congressional mandate again won’t be tolerated by either side of the aisle.” 

Railroads have until at least the end of 2018 to implement Positive Train Control (PTC), which automatically decreases the speed of a train traveling over the limit. Congress provided the option for a two-year extension through 2020, but mandated the railroads to meet certain stipulations, like specific hardware installation and employee training, by the end of 2018 to qualify for the delay.

Lawmakers during Thursday’s hearing rejected additional extensions, however, noting railroads initially had until the end of 2015 to enact PTC, only to receive the current 3-year extension.

“We’re going to kill more people because you’re not doing your job? No. We are not going to extend PTC again if I have anything to say about it,” Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioDemocratic chairman presses Transportation secretary over transparency in Boeing 737 Max probe Democratic lawmaker asks for probe of reports Chao favored Kentucky officials Hillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill MORE (D-Ore.) said to the panel of witnesses.

The FRA has met with 41 railroads in the last 45 days to discuss progress towards implementation, according to the agency’s chief counsel, Juan Reyes, who said Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoDemocratic chairman presses Transportation secretary over transparency in Boeing 737 Max probe Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Democratic lawmaker asks for probe of reports Chao favored Kentucky officials MORE directed railroad officials to evaluate the headway. 

“The NTSB is extremely concerned about any further delays to this life-saving technology. Quite simply, for each day that passes without PTC, we are at continued risk for preventable PTC accidents,” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt told lawmakers. “That risk is unacceptable.” 

The safety agency found that PTC could have slowed down a speeding train that derailed in Washington state late last year, while Sumwalt said the feature could have prevented a collision in South Carolina earlier this month that left two Amtrak employees dead. The NTSB is also investigating another deadly Amtrak crash, in which a train carrying GOP lawmakers to their annual retreat collided with a truck in Virginia, killing one of the vehicle's passengers. 

Amtrak CEO Richard Anderson said there would “likely” be situations where PTC is not functioning by the end of 2018. The company will halt operations for host railroads that cannot meet the required statutes for an extension by the end of this year and is currently questioning whether it will continue operations on routes that do not legally require the safety feature. 

“And for those instances where we will not have PTC even after the 12/31 deadline, because it’s not required by statute, we have a question about whether we’re going to operate at all. And I doubt we will,” he told lawmakers. 

Anderson said host railroads operating “many routes” outside of the Northeast Corridor could end up applying for the PTC extension this year. 

While enacting the safety feature is costly, Reyes said the trouble for commuter railroads in implementing PTC has less to do with funds and is due to “technical issues” and contract negotiations, noting the FRA and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) have provided $2.3 billion worth of loans and grants to help with the process.

But Reyes said no railroads have requested extensions from the FRA, which Denham cited as evidence that railroads will wait until they miss the end-of-year deadline. 

“This 2018 deadline is a real deadline and one we’ve got to address,” Denham said. “Safety is first in all of our transportation, but as of late there’s been too many accidents. And we can do better.” 

Subcommittee ranking member Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoInside the progressive hunt for vulnerable House Democrats Progressive mayor launches primary challenge to top Ways and Means Democrat Ex-GOP Rep. Roskam joins lobbying firm MORE (D-Mass.) echoed Denham’s push for railroads to view this year’s deadline as a “real” marker. 

“2018’s real. And I will tell you there is not a single person on this side of the table that’s going to sit here and quietly just accept the next accident after that deadline,” Capuano told the witnesses. “The blame for that will be laid on the people who deserve the blame, people who are not doing their job.”