Washington – Congress is bowing to warnings by the nation’s railroads, including Metro-North and Amtrak, that passenger service would be disrupted or suspended if a federal deadline for implementation of a safety measure is not pushed back.
At issue is a technology known as Positive Train Control that, through track sensors and onboard computers, monitors trains and automatically slows or stops them if they are going too fast or are in danger of a collision. Congress mandated all railroads implement the technology by Dec. 31, 2015, or face fines, but few will meet the deadline.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas Prendergast warned Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, that “if Congress does not act on an implementation extension (of PTC), the impact to our customers and therefore to the economy of the New York Metropolitan Area could be very significant.”
Congress is rushing to comply. There is broad agreement the deadline should be pushed back, but there are hurdles.
There is no positive train control on the tracks Metro-North uses in Connecticut between New Haven and the New York border or on branch lines to New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury. Implementation of PTC on those tracks is projected to take until 2018.
The MTA received a grant of almost $1 billion from the federal government earlier this year to implement PTC on its routes.
Prendergast said ‘there is little in the way of definitive answers about what will occur,” if the PTC deadline is not extended.
But he said the imposition of individual fines of up to $15,000 on union leaders and railroad executives “would put the continued operation in jeopardy.”
Amtrak was blunter.
In a statement, it said “freight railroads have notified Amtrak that they plan to suspend passenger rail service on their track that is not PTC compliant.”
“We anticipate notifying passengers with affected travel reservations starting December 1,” the Amtrak statement said.
Amtrak has implemented the technology on about 400 miles of its track in the Northeast corridor, including its New Haven to Boston route, but not on a critical stretch of track in Philadelphia where Train No. 188 derailed in May, killing at least eight people and injuring more than 200. Rail experts say PTC technology could have prevented the crash.
Amtrak says it anticipates completing PTC on all the track it control between Washington, D.C., and Boston by the end-of-the-year deadline.
There is no PTC on Amtrak’s line from New Haven to Springfield, Mass., through Hartford.
Most of the nation’s other railroads have also notified Congress that they may halt service.
“Suspending service would mean chaos for tens of thousands of Connecticut commuters and would have only adverse effects on the regional economy,” said Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart. “Congress needs to extend the deadline and avoid the imposition of penalties for those operators making good-faith efforts to install positive train control.”
The railroads wanted the deadline moved back five years. But the Senate and U.S. House or Representative are working on a short-term transportation bill – the current one will expire on Oct. 31—that would extend the PTC deadline three years – and up to five years for some railroads on a “case-by-case” basis.
The stopgap bill would expire in 22 days, when the Highway Trust Fund that funnels federal transportation money to the states is expected to run out of money.
But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she opposes putting the PTC extension on a short-term bill and would prefer it be considered during negotiations between the House and Senate on a longer-term bill. Boxer could stall consideration of the PTC deadline extension.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. said he also rejects the idea of putting a PTC extension on “a short-term patch.” He also said that giving railroads five years to comply with the law is too long.
“I will work for a reasonable measure that provides adequate time but holds railroads accountable through year-by-year review of progress toward fully-implemented PTC,” he said.
Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., the head of the House transportation committee, disagreed with Boxer and Blumenthal that extending the deadline could wait until Congress passes a long-term bill.
“We need to extend the Positive Train Control deadline as soon as possible to prevent significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country,” Shuster said.
While most of the nation’s railroad tracks are owned by freight companies and leased to passenger railroads, much of Connecticut’s tracks are owned by the state — which is also unable to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation said PTC would not be implemented on tracks the state owns until 2018. It says it has secured $115 million to implement PTC on the New Haven Line — $87.3 million from the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) and about $28 million in state bond funding that’s already been approved.
Everhart said the state expects another $22 million later this year from FRA and another $5 million in state bonding, for a total of $142.6 million for the project.
“The safety of our commuters is paramount and we, along with our partners at Metro-North and the MTA, have been making good-faith efforts to meet our obligations under the PTC legislation,” Everhart said.