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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

Senate committee grills FRA's Feinberg on PTC

(Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:28 p.m. CDT.)

The fast-approaching deadline for railroads to implement positive train control (PTC) took center stage during a Senate committee hearing held yesterday for Sarah Feinberg's nomination as administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and other committee members expressed concerns over the possibility that some freight and passenger railroads that fail to meet the Dec. 31 PTC deadline would shut down or cease moving certain commodities Jan. 1, 2016. They referred to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released earlier this week that found most U.S. railroads won't meet the deadline, and that the FRA's oversight of the PTC implementation has been insufficient in monitoring the railroads' progress.

Several committee members reiterated their belief that Congress should grant an extension so that railroads will be prepared to get in compliance with the federal safety regulation. Last month, the Senate approved a bipartisan bill that included a measure to extend the PTC deadline for up to three years, but the House of Representatives has not determined whether it will pass that bill.

Noting that some freight railroads have already begun notifying customers that they may shut down certain operations Jan. 1 if the deadline isn’t extended, the committee pressed Feinberg, the FRA's acting administrator, to provide more specifics on the agency's plan to enforce the current deadline beyond issuing fines. Feinberg has said in the past that the agency will enforce the current deadline and will fine railroads that are not in compliance.

"We cannot wait until the last minute to act," Thune said, noting that railroads may "begin to cycle traffic off their lines" several weeks prior to year-end deadline.

"Everyone is focused on Jan. 1, but the effects of this are being felt sooner, particularly with the freight railroads," said Thune. "We're talking about a November time frame, so the urgency about us doing something is pretty apparent."

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wanted Feinberg to provide specific details to the railroads about how the agency plans to determine the amount of fines that would be issued against those not in compliance, especially for railroads that have been making a "good-faith effort" to install a PTC system.

"We're going to have a huge mess if railroads aren't operating on Jan. 1," McCaskill said.

Feinberg said the agency has been clear with railroads about what will happen if they are not in compliance with the deadline. In addition to fines, which could range up to $25,000 per day per violation, the FRA also will impose additional requirements — such as speed restrictions or additional crew members — on the railroads until their PTC systems are fully implemented. The agency has been and will continue working with railroads to their systems, she said.

Some lawmakers also called on Feinberg to recommend what kind of extension to grant. McCaskill asked her if she would be comfortable with a deadline extension granted on a case-by-case basis, but Feinberg indicated she didn’t believe a case-by-case scenario would be ideal.

"I'm anxious about the prospect of entering into negotiations with 40 different railroads on a case-by-case basis, which would result in a choose-your-own deadline back-and-forth," said Feinberg.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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