Saturday, March 28, 2015

S 650 Introduced – PTC Extension

As I noted in an earlier blog posting Sen. Blunt (R,MO) introduced S 650, the Railroad Safety and Positive Train Control Extension Act. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a markup hearing on the bill this week and recommended the bill favorably after amending it. The bill would extend various deadlines for the implementation of positive train control (PTC) technology on railroads.


Congress required in 49 USC 20157 that all Class 1 railroads install a PTC system by December 31, 2015 on all rail lines over which toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) chemicals are transported. In implementing that requirement the Secretary of Transportation {49 CFR 236.1005} extended that requirement to all railroads that operated passenger rail lines on the same tracks over which TIH chemicals were transported.

There have been a number of challenges in meeting that deadline; both technical and regulatory. One of the problems that the railroads had was getting regulatory approval from the FCC for installing the track-side communications antennas. The FCC had originally required that each antenna installation undergo a separate permitting process, including a required historical commission review. That process was ultimately streamlined, but only after significant delays.

Wholesale Deadline Extension

Section 2 of the bill makes two changes to 49 USC 20157. The first extends the current deadline until December 31st, 2020 {§2(b)(1) to §20157(a)(1)}. The second would change the date basis for determining which sections of rail line would be required to have PTC installations; requiring PTC installation on lines over which TIH chemicals are transported on or after December 31st, 2015 {§2(b)(2) to §20157(a)(1)(B)}.

Retail Deadline Extension

Section 3 of the bill would also allow the Secretary of Transportation to authorize one year extensions to the implementation deadline on a case by case basis through 2022 {§3(a)(3) adding §20157(i)}. It goes on to outline the process by which the railroad would request the extension and the guidelines the Secretary would use in approving the extension. It provides a 10 day approval decision deadline after the Secretary receives the application.

Committee Amendment

The Committee amended the bill by adding a new section 5. This section amends §20157 by adding §20157(a)(3). It would require that each covered railroad would provide detailed annual reports to the Secretary about the progress they were making on the implementation of their PTC systems. The reporting requirement would continue until the Secretary certified the PTC installation under §20157(h).

In an interesting change of Congressional reporting requirements, the amendment did not require a summary report to Congress on the PTC implementation status. Instead it required the Secretary to make each report “available on the website of the Federal Railroad Administration” {§20157(a)(3)(D)}.

Moving Forward

Chairman Thune (R,SD) is obviously making the adoption of S 650 a priority for his Committee. It will be interesting to see how well that translates into moving the bill to the floor of the Senate.

The bill did have bipartisan support in committee. There will be some environmental and safety advocates who can be expected to object to the extension of this deadline. Given the fact that the current deadline cannot be met at this point, I would expect that those objections would take the form of modifying the new deadline date in the amendment process rather than stopping the bill from being considered.

I also expect that there will be an attempt made to add rail lines over which crude oil trains run to the PTC installation requirement. This has included in some other proposed legislation about crude oil trains, but getting that particular amendment added to this bill would probably be easier than getting the other bills through the legislative process. Such an amendment would also make the overall bill more palatable to safety and environmental advocates.

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