Railroads, Shippers, Labor, and Retailers Agree that the Positive Train Control Deadline Needs An Extension. Here’s Why.

Commerce Committee Posts Letters From Freight and Commuter Railroads on Urgent Need for PTC Extension

September 23, 2015

What is Positive Train Control (PTC)?

PTC is advanced technology designed to stop or slow a train before accidents occur. Specifically, the technology may help prevent:

• Accidents caused by excessive speeds
• Train-on-train collisions
• Some situations where trains are routed to incorrect tracks

In late 2008, Congress mandated installation of PTC on certain lines carrying passengers or toxic-by-inhalation (TIH) chemicals by December 31, 2015. PTC involves extensive first-generation components and communications equipment that must be installed on BOTH locomotives (over 20,000 units) and along certain rail track (over 60,000 miles).

Will the December 31, 2015, deadline be met?

As of September 2015, no railroad has yet met the legal requirements for complying with the PTC mandate. Multiple reviews, including one in September 2015 from the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) have determined that the December 31, 2015, deadline for nationwide implementation is not realistic.  The GAO initially outlined its concern in 2013 that freight and commuter railroads would not meet the PTC deadline.

Some delays actually came from federal agencies. Railroads must install about 35,000 wayside interface units and 25,000 poles to transmit PTC signals, and in May 2013 the Federal Communications Commission halted construction of these structures for over a year until the agency could developed a process to review potential historic preservation and tribal impacts. In another instance, the Federal Railroad Administration took seven months to review a submitted safety plan.

Most delays, however, are attributable to the fact that PTC is a complex and new technology.  PTC systems required railroads to develop new components and conduct multiple phases of testing – first in a laboratory environment and then in the field – before installation across the network.

Although over $5.5 billion in private funds have already been spent implementing the technology, GAO estimates that most railroads will need an additional 1-5 years to meet the legal requirements for implementation.

Why is Congress revisiting PTC after mandating it?

If railroads do not meet the current deadline, current law forces them to decide between stopping service and operating in violation of the law.  For multiple reasons including insurance coverage, exposure to tort or other commercial liability, and laws that protect railroad workers from knowingly violating federal safety laws, multiple railroads have stated that they will or may suspend freight rail and/or passenger rail service unless Congress extends the PTC implementation deadline. 

The chairman of the federal Surface Transportation Board has stated that complex common carrier laws and regulations that requiring railroads to carry certain cargos and to allow passenger trains on tracks might not apply without a change in law.

Freight and commuter railroads have provided information about their progress toward meeting the December 31, 2015, deadline for full PTC implementation, challenges they have faced, and what impact rail shippers will begin to see before on or before January 1st if Congress does not enact changes to the PTC mandate.

Letters on anticipated impacts if Congress fails to extend the PTC deadline:

Freight railroads:

Union Pacific



Norfolk Southern

Canadian National

Canadian Pacific

Kansas City Southern

American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA)

Passenger railroads:

Metropolitan Transportation Authority - Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road (New York, N.Y.)

Metra (Chicago, Ill.)

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (Boston, Mass.)

Port Authority Trans-Hudson (N.Y./N.J.)

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (Philadelphia, Pa.)

Virginia Railway Express (Washington, D.C)

Alaska Railroad (Anchorage, Alaska)

Music City Star (Nashville, Tenn.)

Trinity Railway Express (Dallas-Fort Worth area)

Denton County Transportation Authority - A-Train (Dallas-Fort Worth area)

Capital Metro (Austin, Texas)

New Mexico Rail Runner Express (Albuquerque, N.M.)

Frontrunner (Salt Lake City, Utah)

North County Transit District - COASTER (San Diego County, Calif.)

Metrolink (Los Angeles, Calif.)

Altamont Corridor Express (Silicon Valley, Calif.)

Trimet - Westside Express Service (Portland, Ore.)

Sound Transit (Seattle, Wash.)

Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District - South Shore Line (Chicago, Ill. And Gary, Ind.)

Connecticut Department of Transportation

American Public Transportation Association (APTA)

Rail Shippers, Customers, and Labor Organizations

Water Utilities:

"Because virtually all U.S. railroads will not be ready to fully implement PTC on that date, water utilities across the country could face severe interruptions of the supplies of substances they use to treat municipal drinking water and wastewater. Even a temporary interruption of water disinfection chemical deliveries could risk a public health disaster for communities across the country."

Agriculture Transportation Working Group:

"In order to prevent a disruption in the supply of necessary fertilizers, crop inputs and rail cars for transporting freight, an extension on the implementation of PTC is necessary. The inability to move anhydrous ammonia by rail after the December 31, 2015 PTC deadline would cause fertilizer manufacturing facilities to curtail production, leaving farmers without enough fertilizer to use during the narrow planting seasons across the country."

Joint Trade Association Letter (Retailers and Manufacturers):

"A shutdown of large segments of the nation’s freight rail network would have catastrophic consequences.  As rail customers, we rely on railroads to deliver coal, farm products, automobiles, chemicals, building materials, retail consumer goods and many other essential products. A major disruption of freight service would have cascading impacts on the nation’s food, energy and water supplies, as well as transportation, construction and nearly every sector of the U.S. economy."

Chemical Shippers - Rail Customer Coalition (RCC):

"We are very concerned that we will be unable to ship and receive these chemicals by rail once the deadline passes at the end of this year. More than 96 percent of all manufactured goods are directly touched by chemistry, including TIH chemicals such as chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, ethylene oxide, and hydrogen fluoride. Just about every corner of our economy relies on these chemicals, including health care, farming, manufacturing, renewable energy production, construction, and water treatment."

National Industrial Transportation League (NITL):

"The prospects of pervasive negative impacts across the country and throughout the economy are not theoretical as shippers, receivers and rail carriers confront a massive disruption in freight rail service. Extending the PTC deadline does not mean retreating from the safety mandate of the Rail Safety Improvement Act; rather, it means giving America’s freight railroads the time all informed parties believe is necessary to achieve the PTC goal of improved safety."

Freight Rail Customer Alliance (FRCA):

"Such an outcome would result in chaos for the nation’s transportation system and for various industrial and agricultural sectors. Numerous commodities, such as coal and grain, can only be shipped by rail, especially from certain areas of our country and/or over long distances. This disruption of rail service will have a dramatic impact on freight shippers and the customers they serve, let alone negatively affecting our nation’s economy."

SMART Transportation Division and Transportation Communications Union Joint Letter:

"Such decisions will cause significant disruptions in our nation’s rail network and put thousands of hardworking men and women in the rail industry, including our members, out of work through no fault of their own."

CF Industries (manufacturer of anhydrous ammonia):

"If CF were unable to produce and transport anhydrous ammonia to storage and distribution terminals across the nation's farmland, there would be an insufficient supply of ammonia to satisfy farmers' demands during next spring's application. A shortage of ammonia for spring application would affect crop yields and food supply."

South Dakota Association of Cooperatives:

"Concerns over violation of safety laws and regulations and their subsequent fines, places all railroads between a rock and a hard spot… do they continue service or do the follow the rules.  We believe that railroads have a common carrier obligation to provide service, however when Federal regulations appear to impede their ability to do so, it is imperative that Congress rectify the situation as soon as possible."

What is Congress doing to prevent service disruptions while moving PTC installation forward?

There have been several different proposals to extend the deadline for PTC, including one authored by the Obama Administration in Section 9402 of its GROW AMERICA Act transportation proposal.

On July 30, 2015, the U.S. Senate approved the DRIVE Act on a bipartisan vote of 65-34. The DRIVE Act is a significant bill creating forward looking policies for building transportation infrastructure and improving safety. The DRIVE Act included a PTC extension provision (Section 35442), passed by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which took the best parts from different proposals for extending the PTC deadline. Commerce Committee chairman, Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) explained the extension in a speech on the Senate floor:

"The bipartisan extension is a rigorous and demanding case-by-case approach, with enforceable milestones and metrics.

"The Secretary of Transportation approves or disapproves the dates in a railroad’s updated implementation schedule, including the hard end date for implementation.

"Under no circumstances could the Secretary approve a date for full installation and activation that is later than 2018.  The Secretary also has the authority to identify and require changes to deficient schedules that do not show safe and successful implementation as soon as practicable."

The proposal is specifically designed to maintain the need for railroads to install and activate PTC systems as soon a safely possible while recognizing that review by regulators after installation, which is necessary to achieve legal certification of full PTC implementation, will take additional time.

So work on the PTC extension is virtually complete?

No. Despite bipartisan Senate passage of the DRIVE Act, the House of Representatives has yet to pass a related multi-year transportation bill. Adding to the seriousness of the situation, while the current legal deadline for PTC installation is currently December 31, 2015, the deadline to avoid disruptions for Americans who depend on rail transportation services comes sooner.

Railroads are complicated systems and - absent a change in law - railroads will have to begin the process of notifying customers and clearing their systems of certain freight shipments weeks before the deadline. This preparation would create transportation delays that would impact and harm commuters and our economy as a whole, even if Congress passed a last minute extension of the PTC deadline. As a practical matter Congress needs to pass an extension by the end of October to prevent freight and commuter rail disruption.

To do this, Congress may have to pass the PTC extension in the DRIVE Act as a stand-alone bill.

Need for a PTC extension highlighted in the media:

New York Times – Nation's Rail Service Is Threatened as Deadline for Safety System Looms

Safety Deadline May Exempt U.S. Railroads from From Freight Obligations

McClatchyRail Service Crisis Looms Ahead of Safety Law Deadline

New York TimesPanel Urges More Time on Train Safety Technology

Chicago Sun-Times editorial: Congress should extend the deadline to give Metra and other railroads a chance to get the job done

Washington Post editorial: Congress should revise the 2008 legislation to give railroads more time to come into compliance

Committee sources:

June 10, 2015, hearing – Passenger Rail Safety: Accident Prevention and On-Going Efforts to Implement Train Control Technology

September 17, 2015 – Federal Railroad Administration Nomination Hearing

July 29, 2015 – Chairman Thune floor speech: Thune: Rail Passengers Deserve Critical Safety and Infrastructure Improvements

9/29/15 -- Update: New letters from rail customers and news story