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— by Julie Sneider, senior associate editor
Safety was a major topic at the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) Rail Conference 2015, which was held June 21-24 in Salt Lake City a little more than a month after an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight passengers.
The accident was top of mind during a question-and-answer session between APTA members and Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg and Acting Federal Transit Administrator Therese McMillan. In response to a question from APTA Chairman Phillip Washington, who moderated the panel, Feinberg announced that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) would enforce the federal Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to implement positive train control (PTC) and would penalize those that don't comply.
"Rail safety has improved dramatically, but recent accidents remind us that more work needs to be done," Feinberg said in a video message. "PTC is the most important safety measure to be taken for more than a century."
There had been talk on the Hill earlier this year about extending the deadline, but "frankly, that was before the Amtrak derailment," Feinberg said.
The derailment could have been avoided had PTC been implemented on the line where it occurred, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which continues to investigate the accident.
Feinberg said she knew the agency’s enforcement of the Dec. 31 deadline would give some transit agency administrators "heartburn," but the FRA plans to continue assisting them with expertise and resources during implementation.
The FRA is developing options for railroads that aren’t in compliance by year’s end, although the agency potentially could issue fines of $15,000 to $25,000 per day for failure to equip locomotives on time.
"We don't want to punish railroads that worked hard to make PTC a priority and treat them equally as those that never made it a priority," Feinberg said.
According to APTA, 29 percent of commuter railroads are targeting to complete PTC equipment installation by 2015’s end. Full implementation for all commuter roads is projected by 2020.
APTA's Washington asked Feinberg if rumors are true that some railroads plan to cease service Jan. 1, 2016, if they miss the Dec. 31 deadline.
"I think railroads are thinking of their own liability issues," she responded. "Some railroads have talked to us. They have lawyers saying they don’t think [the railroad] should be operating" if the deadline passes before PTC systems are implemented.
Meanwhile, McMillan described the FTA's enforcement of its new safety oversight authority under the federal MAP-21 legislation. For the first time, the FTA last month directed State Safety Oversight Agencies with jurisdiction over rail systems to audit subway tunnel ventilation systems. The directive stemmed from a Safety Management Inspection (SMI) of a fatal smoke incident in a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) tunnel earlier this year.
In the future, the FTA will conduct an SMI only when a particular circumstance warrants it, such as in response to the WMATA incident, McMillan said.
The SMIs will not replace investigations into safety incidents by state or federal agencies, such as the NTSB, she added.