Railroads have amped up pressure on Congress to extend a year-end deadline to install upgraded train safety technology by threatening to cut off service — and the nation’s rail regulator isn’t giving lawmakers an easy out by recommending a way to do so.
“As far as we’re concerned, the deadline at present is what it is and we have to enforce against it absent some congressional action,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an interview with reporters on Sept. 29, when asked about giving railroads more time to install the technology, known as positive train control.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s acting head Sarah Feinberg stuck to that ground at her Senate confirmation hearing earlier in September. Feinberg, who was selected to lead the agency by President Barack Obama, declined to specify an extension despite sustained criticism from senators.
Congress’ search for a way out of the deadline it imposed in 2008 (PL 110-432) comes after years of railroads reporting that the work to get new safety systems up and running would take much longer than the current statutory deadline, which requires implementation by Dec. 31.
Amtrak amplified the railroad warnings this week, when it said it would suspend service on the national network by mid-December if the deadline isn’t extended. Even the agency’s most profitable route along the Northeast Corridor, where most of the infrastructure is owned by Amtrak, could be subject to disruptions on segments owned by other railroads which haven’t been able to update their systems in time.
Congress’ PTC mandate came after a series of high-profile rail accidents, including a deadly train collision in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2008 that killed 25 — an accident caused by a distracted train operator who ignored a red signal while sending text messages on his cellphone.
The PTC is designed to stop or slow a train to prevent some collisions or derailments such as those caused by train operators ignoring signals or speeding.
The FRA hasn’t recommended a way for Congress to extend the deadline, but issued an August report acknowledging that by Jan. 1, 2016, the agency expects widespread noncompliance with the current law. Railroads subject to the deadline are those carrying passengers and certain kinds of hazardous materials.
The FRA asserted in its August report that it plans take enforcement action against railroads by the beginning of 2016 and could impose daily penalties between $1,500 and $25,000 per violation for those that don’t upgrade in time.
Industry groups have responded by forecasting steep economic losses if railroads shut down service to avoid the legal consequences of operating in defiance of federal law.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade group, published a report in October that found service cutoffs could result in $30 billion in economic losses and 700,000 lost jobs.
Railroads have also warned lawmakers that operating out of compliance could expose them to legal risk. The BNSF Railway, for example, sent a letter to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune in September warning of the legal risk and potential service shutoff that could result.
“This is a looming economic and safety disaster that is completely avoidable,” Thune said at Feinberg’s confirmation hearing before the committee he chairs in September.
But Feinberg wouldn’t specify a preferred length of extension.
“The statute is very black and white and offers, really, no wiggle room,” Feinberg said, adding that she would have more flexibility regarding the deadline under the administration’s proposal in a multi-year surface transportation authorization. That proposal, which would give the Transportation Department authority to provide case-by-case extensions, hasn’t received any action in Congress.
Transportation leaders in the House and Senate have coalesced around a three-year extension of the deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, but their expressed routes for getting that to the president’s desk differ.
The Senate’s six-year highway and transit bill (HR 22) would reauthorize Amtrak and contains a provision that would extend the PTC deadline to Dec. 31, 2018. The House has opted to introduce a PTC extension as stand-alone legislation (HR 3651), which also would give railroads a three-year extension and grant additional time on a case-by-case basis.
Thune said an extension of positive train control was one provision he wanted to see in the Senate’s continuing resolution passed on Sept. 30, “but some things didn’t make it in.”
It’s doubtful Congress will approve a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization, with the new PTC deadline, before current authorization expires on Oct. 29. Many people watching the legislation’s progress expect another short-term extension in October with final passage of the long-term bill teed up for year’s end.
Leaders in both chambers committed to conferencing on a bill after the August recess, but the Senate’s measure only paid for three years of programs.
Finding the extra money in the House has proved difficult, and may undermine the effort on a six-year bill.
Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan told Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster on Oct. 2 not to count on an international tax revenue offset, which was expected to be the major source of funding for the measure.
Shuster’s office said he’ll move forward on an authorization bill without the funding in place while the two committees continue to work together to get it paid for. But his office declined to specify how many years such an authorization bill would run without clarity on the funding.
Several train accidents this year have amplified calls for lawmakers to pass rail safety legislation.
An Amtrak passenger train derailed near Philadelphia in May, killing eight and injuring more than 200. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that PTC could have prevented the accident because the train was traveling at more than 100 miles per hour when it went over a speed-restricted curve and jumped the tracks.
That spurred some in Congress to push for a tighter deadline for certain railroads to install the PTC, but it is possible the accident also slowed momentum on extending the deadline in general.
For example, following the Amtrak accident, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s ranking member, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., pulled his support for a five-year extension from Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt (S 650) that had already been marked up by the committee.
Rail safety issues again rose to prominence Monday in the wake of another Amtrak train derailment, this time in central Vermont. Seven of the 98 passengers and four crew members were injured, one of them seriously. The FRA said the preliminary cause of the accident was a rock slide in the path of the train.
Train 55, also known as the Vermonter, was traveling to Washington, D.C., from Saint Albans, Vt. The FRA and the NTSB said they are investigating and that two train cars had derailed.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., issued a statement after the accident calling for a focus on rail safety.
“Today’s derailment, which left a horrifying zigzag of steel sliding off the tracks, raises anew important, vital questions about rail safety and maintenance,” Blumenthal said.