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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

GAO report underscores need for PTC extension, AAR's Hamberger says


A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week confirms what the rail industry has been saying for years: Congress needs to extend the deadline for railroads to implement positive train control (PTC) technology, Association of American Railroads President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Hamberger said yesterday.

"The GAO report reinforces the freight rail industry's contention that PTC is an extremely complex technology that requires more time to install and safely test," Hamberger said in a prepared statement. "Freight rail operators have always contended that the Congressionally mandated 2015 deadline for having PTC fully functional and being used coast to coast by passenger and freight rail alike was not realistic."

The report found that most U.S. railroads won't meet the federally mandated Dec. 31 deadline to install the rail safety technology, and that legislation is necessary to extend the deadline.

Twenty of 29 railroads estimated that they will implement PTC within one to five years after the deadline and three did not have an estimated completion date. Of the six remaining railroads, one was excepted from installing PTC, and four commuter railroads and one small freight railroad indicated they would meet the deadline, according to the report.

Moreover, the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) oversight of the PTC implementation has been insufficient to monitor the railroads’ progress, the report found.

FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg has said that the agency will enforce the Dec. 31 deadline, and will begin assessing fines against railroads that don't meet it. Freight- and passenger-rail executives have suggested that their companies may not be able to operate after Jan. 1, 2016, if they are not in compliance with federal safety regulations.

AAR's Hamberger noted that time is running out for Congress to extend the deadline.

"Railroads are beginning to notify their customers of the possibility of an impending rail shutdown as they, too, have to prepare for such a worst-case scenario," Hamberger said. "Congress can’t wait until November or December when the clock is about to run out. If lawmakers want to avert a massive disruption of passenger and freight transport this fall, which will inflict significant hardships on businesses and passengers alike, it must take action now to extend the deadline."

Congress passed railroad safety legislation in 2008 that mandated PTC to be installed by Dec. 31, 2015. The GAO's PTC report was requested by House and Senate committee leaders, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.)

"This GAO report confirms that the PTC mandate is not achievable, and extending the deadline is essential to preventing significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country," Shuster said in a press release. "I am committed to working with Sen.Thune and our colleagues to address the clear need for an extension, and to ensuring that railroads implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner."