According to a Federal Railroad Administration report released to the House and Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday, only three freight and commuter railroad companies have submitted safety plans for the implementation of new technology, required to be finished by a December 31st deadline. The technology, Positive Train Control (PTC), depends on GPS technology to automatically adjust speeds in the case of a runaway train or a derailment. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) claims that the technology would have prevented several recent train disasters, including May’s Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured 200. The U.S.’s second-largest freight company, BNSF Railways, and the commuter railway authorities for Los Angeles and Philadelphia are the only entities to submit the safety plans, a pre-requisite to implementing the technology. The report states that the largest railroad companies will only have 39 percent of trains ready and 34 percent of employees prepared to meet the deadline. In addition, only 29 percent of all commuter rail lines will be ready by December 31st. The report also states that the nation’s largest rail carrier Union Pacific, as well as Norfolk Southern, have yet to equip any of their trains with PTC technology.
Congress imposed a seven-year mandate as part of a 2008 railroad safety bill in response to a collision between a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train, killing 25 Metrolink passengers. The NTSB concluded that the Metrolink engineer was at fault, as he was distracted by text messages on his phone. News of the delay is not surprising to many inside the Beltway. Both rail companies and transportation authorities have told Congress on several occasions that they would not be able to meet the deadline, citing cost, as well as a myriad of technical and logistical complications. In addition to PTC technology being expensive, railroad companies have had a harder time than expected procuring enough radio spectrum for the systems to operate as well as being granted federal permission to erect the antennas needed to operate PTC. In addition, many freight and commuter railroad operators share the same railroad space, complicating both the budgetary and logistical processes.
If anything, the railroad industry’s pleas were heard by a few prominent Republicans in the Senate. Commerce Committee chair John Thune (R-SD), along with the Senate Transportation Committee argued that the implementation was “not feasible for the vast majority of freight and commuter railroads.” In a memo penned to the Department of Transportation and the Office of Management and Budget, the Commerce Committee warned, “freight and commuter railroads may be forced to cease some or all service at the deadline as a result of unknown liability and penalty risk.” Thune successfully pushed a bill through the Senate last week as part of a six-year transportation spending package that would extend the deadline until December 31st 2018. Thune’s bill also allocates $200 million to help the companies develop and implement the PTC technology. That legislative effort, however, is likely a futile attempt. Congress has already adjourned for the August recess and the House of Representatives has already passed a temporary transportation bill. Thune’s bill is not expected to be acted upon in the House this year. The Federal Railroad Administration expects to follow the 2008 Congressional mandate, likely issuing fines and other penalties beyond the deadline, barring new legislation.
New York Times – Rob Nixon
Reuters – David Morgan
WRAL.com/Associated Press – Joan Lowy