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PTC, hours-of-service concerns voiced at House 'Rail Safety Act' hearing


The U.S. rail industry’s record safety achievements are due in large part to the resources freight railroads have committed to improving safety during the past 30 years, and safety will not be bolstered if resources are directed to positive train control (PTC) that would have had a more pronounced impact if spent elsewhere, Association of American Railroads (AAR) officials told House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members during a hearing yesterday on the status of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
Railroads have made large investments in safety-enhancing infrastructure, equipment and technology, as well as employee training and cooperative programs with other safety stakeholder groups, such as labor unions, shippers and federal regulators, said Norfolk Southern Corp. Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Mark Manion, who testified on behalf of the AAR.
It is “short sighted” to place an enormous emphasis on one technology — PTC — when less costly, more effective alternatives exist for reducing the risk of accidents, he said.

There are concerns that the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) final PTC rule exceeded the scope of its mandate, said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who chairs the House committee’s Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, adding that “regulatory overreach” could threaten the rail industry and economy for “very little safety benefit.”

Shuster also questioned the FRA order that railroads install PTC on lines that carried toxic-by-inhalation (TIH) materials in 2008 because “nothing in the Rail Safety Improvements Act calls for using 2008 as the base year — only the 2015 implementation date is mentioned in the statute,” he said.
“Using 2008 as the base year makes little sense because TIH traffic patterns in 2015 will be vastly different than they were in 2008,” said Shuster. “If left unchanged, the 2008 baseline year will mean railroads may have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy PTC on thousands of miles of rail lines on which neither passengers nor TIH materials will be moving in 2015.”

Earlier this month, the AAR and FRA reached an agreement under which the FRA will review its rules pertaining to the TIH traffic pattern base year.
Commuter railroads also have serious concerns regarding the PTC mandate, “particularly given the dire financial straits that many of these public agencies face during our current economic recession,” said Shuster. At the hearing, American Public Transportation Association officials requested that the federal deadline for PTC implementation on commuter-rail lines be extended from Dec. 31, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2018, to provide more time for technology development and funding.

“The additional $2 billion price tag for implementation of PTC on commuter-rail systems is out of reach for almost all commuter-rail agencies,” said Shuster. “Commuter rails argue that the PTC mandate could have the unintended consequence of degrading safety by requiring the deferral of needed state of good repair projects in order to fund initial phases of PTC.”

However, rail labor union officials testified that “there is no such thing as federal regulatory overreach” when it comes to ensuring the safety of rail workers.

"Implementation of PTC is a small price to pay for saving lives and limbs,” said United Transportation Union National Legislative Director James Stem. “PTC, long advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board, will become an integral part of the safety overlay protecting passengers, the public and train crews."

Meanwhile, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen National President Dennis Pierce provided testimony to address the Rail Safety Improvement Act’s hours-of-service provisions.

“The law is not combating fatigue to the degree Congress intended in unscheduled freight service,” he said. “Train line-ups are as unreliable as ever, and we believe it’s time to move to a 10-hour call. Further, the AAR agreed with us and the UTU two-and-a-half years ago that eight hours off duty was sufficient at the away-from-home terminal, and it’s time to put that understanding in the law.”

In addition, because it’s “not based on science,” the six days of work-48 hours off provision is not mitigating fatigue, said Pierce.

“The law allows the railroads to create situations where employees who are truly fatigued do not qualify for 48 hours off,” he said. “Conversely, the application of the law requires others who are not fatigued to take 48 hours off.”

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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