U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, will convene a hearing titled, “Implementation of Positive Train Control,” at 10:15 a.m. on Thursday, March 1, 2018. The hearing will focus on the implementation of the safety technology known as positive train control (PTC), amid concerns that some passenger railroads could fall short of meeting legal safety obligations, as well as actions or steps that could be taken to ensure compliance with the statutory deadline of December 31, 2018.
“Railroad passengers expect railroads to follow safety laws and implement the necessary technology to do so, including positive train control,” said Thune. “After troubling reports that some commuter railroads are falling behind on implementation, this hearing will examine what needs to get done and what railroads need to do to meet their obligations.”
Earlier in the year, Chairman Thune sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting an evaluation of PTC implementation among passenger railroads. The GAO will testify about the results of its study at the hearing. Chairman Thune also asked the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (DOT OIG) to track Federal government funding and financing support for PTC, and spending among recipient railroads, and the DOT OIG will also testify about its findings. The hearing will also include testimony from Amtrak and the nation’s largest commuter rail agency, Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
• Ms. Susan Fleming, Director of Physical Infrastructure, Government Accountability Office
• Mr. Barry J. DeWeese, Assistant Inspector General, Department of Transportation OIG
• Mr. David L. Mayer, Chief Safety Officer, Metropolitan Transportation Authority
• Mr. Richard Anderson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Amtrak
Thursday, March 1, 2018
This hearing will take place in Russell Senate Office Building, Room 253. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
Chairman John Thune
We convene today’s hearing at a critical time for positive train control, or PTC, implementation.The victims, families, and all those affected by the overspeed derailment of Amtrak 501 in Washington and the collision of Amtrak 91 in South Carolina remain in our thoughts and prayers. These accidents underscore the importance of implementing PTC quickly, safely, and successfully.And, while tragic grade crossing collisions like the one involving Amtrak Special Train 923 are not generally prevented by PTC, reducing the number of such incidents remains another important priority.We are now about 10 months away from the December 31, 2018, statutory deadline for PTC, and recent reports suggest many railroads will not fully implement this safety technology by the end of the year.More alarmingly, a new report from the GAO, which I requested and which will be presented today, finds that seven to 19 commuter railroads are at-risk for not even qualifying for a limited extension to work out software, testing, and interoperability issues.The Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in October 2015, extended the original deadline of December 31, 2015, amid reports that no railroad could meet the deadline and many railroads were contemplating halting passenger rail service or shipments of essential supplies for agricultural production and water purification. This Committee, on a bipartisan basis, took action to avert a rail shutdown and set a realistic framework for implementation.With this realistic framework in place, railroads should be able to get the job done.The law requires railroads to implement PTC by December 31, 2018, and allows a railroad to apply for an extension of up to 24 months to ensure PTC works as intended if, and only if, that railroad meets important milestones like full PTC hardware installation, spectrum acquisition, and employee training, and meets other milestones, such as implementing PTC on a specific territory or initiating revenue service demonstration. For Class I freight railroads and Amtrak, the bar is higher – PTC must be implemented or in revenue service demonstration on a majority of the required territories or route miles.The law is clear – for each railroad, passenger or freight, all PTC hardware must be on-board or in-the-ground by December 31, 2018.The law also required revised PTC implementation plans to include transparent annual metrics and provided new authority for the FRA to enforce those plans. To date, FRA has initiated cases against 14 railroads that failed to meet hardware installation milestones or adequately report progress in a timely manner. If railroads do not comply with the law by the year’s end, I expect the FRA to take the enforcement action needed to bring railroads into compliance.Railroads should not count on any extensions to the statutory framework Congress passed in 2015.To be sure, PTC installation is an enormously complex undertaking. To implement PTC, railroads must develop, acquire, and install new hardware components and complex software systems that are able to communicate with other railroads.There are different PTC systems, and each system has different configurations – and yet they all must work seamlessly across our nation’s interwoven rail network. There are a limited number of PTC hardware suppliers, and there are a limited number of individuals who have the technical expertise to program that hardware. Simply put, PTC is not an “off-the-shelf” technology, and a railroad can’t simply “flip a switch.”Understanding these challenges, the Federal government has provided substantial funding and financing support for implementation. A new report from the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, which I requested and which will also be released today, shows DOT has awarded nearly $3 billion in grant and loan assistance – with $2.3 billion provided to date and another $600 million on the way. This includes much of the $199 million that this Committee worked to include in the FAST Act.For instance, this financial support includes a $967 million loan and a nearly $100 million grant to support the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, one of our witnesses today.While not all financial assistance should come from the Federal government, with a significant amount of Federal support not yet expended, it is critical that grant and loan recipients deploy resources in a timely and efficient manner in advance of the deadline.I want to conclude my remarks by emphasizing what is at stake here. Failing to comply with the law is not an option. If commuter railroads do not meet the requirements of the law, there is a real risk of halting or reducing service. If so, millions of people who depend on commuter rail to get to work each day, or to visit a doctor, or see a family member, could see their lives disrupted. Those entities that aren’t on track need to look at successful examples and recommit their organizations to getting the job done.I will now turn to Ranking Member Nelson for any opening remarks.
I want to thank Chairman Thune for calling today’s hearing on positive train control.
We have met several times on this topic previously.
I wish I could say that this technology was in place and working, so that we wouldn’t have to keep having these deadly accidents.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Instead, we are here again after another tragic crash that killed several people and injured dozens, and which could have been prevented with positive train control technology.
In Washington State, an Amtrak train was speeding as it rounded into a curve and derailed onto the highway below, killing three people and injuring more than sixty.
The facts of this case are eerily similar to the 2015 crash in Philadelphia, where a speeding Amtrak train derailed while traveling into a curve, killing eight and injuring hundreds.
Just last month, an Amtrak train traveling to Florida was in a head-on collision with a CSX freight train.
The engineer and a train conductor from Florida were killed in this collision and more than a hundred people were injured.
These tragedies can be prevented.
And they should be prevented.
That’s why the industry as a whole must do a better job of implementing positive train control and get it done quickly.
We’ve heard for far too long from some in the industry that implementing positive train control is a complex and expensive process and that railroads have faced serious challenges during implementation.
But more and more these arguments are becoming tiresome, especially in light of the fact that the railroads have had ten years already to get this done.
I also know that many railroads have overcome these challenges.
Railroads like BNSF, SEPTA commuter rail, and others have made significant progress toward implementation and I applaud them for their work.
But some railroads are way behind the curve and, shockingly, according to the Department of Transportation, a few have made almost zero progress.
This includes railroads in my state of Florida.
This is unacceptable.
In many instances, it feels like déjà vu. In 2015, none of the railroads were near completion.
The railroads, commuter rails, states, and countless others, including the Obama administration, requested an extension of the positive train control deadline.
Reluctantly, Congress granted additional time, but demanded real action from the railroads, including:
- Completion of equipping the locomotives and tracks
- Significant testing and evidence that their systems work, and
- New penalties for the department to ensure that railroads are meeting their deadlines.
We also provided nearly 200 million dollars in grant funding, in addition to the more than two billion dollars in federal support that had previously been provided.
That effort was supposed to ensure that PTC would be quickly implemented.
We heard repeatedly that, given a limited amount of time, railroads would be able to get positive train control in place.
Yet, here we are again
And it’s now become crystal clear that many railroads have not lived up to their end of the bargain.
That’s why I’m not inclined to give anyone additional time.
We simply must get this done.
That means railroads need to make sure that they are doing everything possible to meet the 2018 deadline.
States and the Department of Transportation must come together to ensure that all available resources are being directed to this task.
And finally, the department must use its authority to hold railroads’ feet to the fire.
We have a responsibility to the traveling public to learn from these tragic crashes and to improve safety on our rail lines.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on how we can meet that challenge.
Witness Panel 1
Ms. Susan FlemingDirector of Physical InfrastructureGovernment Accountability Office
Mr. Barry J. DeWeeseAssistant Inspector GeneralDepartment of Transportation OIG
Mr. David L MayerChief Safety OfficerMetropolitan Transportation Authority
Mr. Richard AndersonPresident and Chief Executive OfficerAmtrak