Legislation to Keep America’s Railroads Open
Addressing an unattainable December 31, 2015, deadline for implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, on October 29, 2015, President Barack Obama signed into law bipartisan legislation (H.R. 3819) extending the deadline to avert a railroad service shutdown and provide for the orderly implementation of the new safety requirement. The provision signed into law incorporated input from multiple proposals offered by the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, and the Obama Administration in its GROW AMERICA Act proposal.
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).
Why did Congress revisit the PTC requirement after mandating it?
If railroads did not meet the previous December 31, 2015, deadline the law would have forced 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 had stated that they would have had to suspend freight rail and/or passenger rail service without an extension to the PTC implementation deadline.
The chairman of the federal Surface Transportation Board acknowledged that complex common carrier laws and regulations requiring railroads to carry certain cargos and allowing passenger trains on tracks might not apply without a change in law.
Multiple reviews, including one in September 2015 from the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that the December 31, 2015, deadline for nationwide implementation was not realistic. No railroad managed to meet the legal requirements for complying with the PTC mandate by the old deadline.
Some delays in meeting the old deadline actually came from federal agencies. Full implementation requires installation of 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 safety plan submitted by a railroad.
Most delays, however, were 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.
What did Congress do to prevent service disruptions while moving PTC installation forward?
Several different proposals were offered 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.
The proposal was specifically designed to maintain the need for railroads to install and activate PTC systems as soon as 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.
On October 20, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released new legislative language in a broader transportation reauthorization bill that blended the Senate-passed PTC extension with a previously introduced House proposal that also extended the PTC deadline. The new language, which became law on October 29, 2015, extended the PTC deadline until December 31, 2018, with the possibility of an additional two years to ensure the system works as intended. Only railroads that have completed installation, applicable employee training, and spectrum acquisition by 2018 are eligible for the additional two years. The legislation also expanded accountability measures to ensure progress toward full implementation by requiring annual benchmarks and authorizing regulators to take punitive actions against railroads that miss them.
Click here for a fact sheet on the bill.
So work on the PTC extension is virtually complete?
Yes, but efforts to oversee the successful implementation of PTC on major railroads will continue until PTC is fully implemented and operational where required.
Letters on anticipated impacts if Congress had failed to extend the PTC deadline:
Officials Urge Deadline Extension to Keep Railroads Open:
"Railroads play a vital role in our nation's economy. We cannot afford a disruption of rail service, which could occur if Congress does not extend this deadline."
"(G)iven that PTC will not be fully implemented and tested, and railroad employees will not be fully trained by the end of the year, we urge every member of Congress to support your legislation."
"(M)ost of the trains operating intercity passenger rail service on behalf of state-supported and long-distance corridors will not be compliant by the December 31, 2015, deadline due to operations over other host railroad track."
Rail Shippers, Customers, and Labor Organizations
"Without a solution from Congress in the next few weeks, the impact on our members and the broader economy will grow every day. A recent economic analysis by the American Chemistry Council calculated that a one month shutdown will pull $30 billion out of the economy with a loss of 700,000 jobs."
"As a practical matter, the resolution of this problem cannot wait until December. The Congress has an opportunity now to prevent this disaster."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"A shutdown of large segments of the nation's freight rail network would have broad and long lasting consequences. As rail customers, we rely on railroads to deliver farm products, automobiles, coal, heating oil, propane, road salt, chemicals, consumer goods, building materials and many other essential products. A major disruption of freight service would have cascading impacts on food, energy and water supplies, as well as transportation, construction and nearly every sector of the U.S. economy."
"We are concerned about the negative impact interrupted rail service will have on the ability to efficiently sustain supply chain operations in certain aspects of the telecommunications marketplace, which is a major contributor of growth to the U.S. economy."
Need for a PTC extension highlighted in the media:
New York Times editorial: Congress should extend rail safety deadline with safeguards
New York Times: Panel 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
Los Angeles Times editorial: Positive train control must wait, but the wait shouldn't be too long
September 17, 2015 – Federal Railroad Administration Nomination Hearing
1/20/16 -- Update: Reflecting PTC extension enactment