Wednesday, June 24, 2015

House Hearing on PTC Deployment

This morning the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on “The State of Positive Train Control Implementation in the United States”. I was not able to provide advance notice because the hearing was not listed on the website (the House site I normally monitor for hearing information) until after the hearing had started.

The witnesses were an interesting mix of government and industry representatives:

Ms. Sarah Feinberg, FRA;
Mr. Russell Kerwin, Metrolink/AECOM;
Mr. Frank Lonegro, CSX Transportation;
Mr. Charles Mathias, FCC; and
Mr. Donald Orseno, Metra Commuter Railroad

The PTC system is required by law to be installed and operable on all tracks where passenger rail operates and on Class I rail lines that are used to transport toxic inhalation (TIH) chemicals. The deadline for installation, again by law, is December 31, 2015. Some of the passenger railroads have mainly completed their PTC installations and most will apparently have their installations complete by the deadline, though the individual systems may not be approved by the FRA by that time. The freight railroads will not, however, be anywhere near meeting that deadline.

Two interesting comments about the problem can be found in the written testimony from the FRA and CSX:

FRA (pg 2) – “FRA reserves the right to use any and all enforcement tools from civil penalties to emergency orders, to require the railroads to make progress on PTC implementation to ensure public safety prior to January 1, 2016.”

CSX (pg 8) – “Operating certain trains on nonPTC-compliant tracks could be an unacceptable choice for some railroads, and the impact of railroads’ decisions on commuters and industries that rely on rail service could have significant effects that have not yet been fully examined.”
FRA is stuck. The December deadline was set by Congress and they are required to enforce the deadline. They have yet to come up with their detailed enforcement plan, but at some point in the process (CSX does not expect to have their PTC plan fully deployed until 2020) there will be imposition of some really significant fines (eg: up to $25,000/day for each line segment where PTC is not deployed).

The freight railroads may have to make a decision if they are willing to continue to allow passenger railroads to operate on their lines where PTC is not functioning. The potential liability for an accident on a line that is legally deficient in safety makes the lawyers and bankers for the railroads extremely nervous.

The issue for the transportation of TIH chemicals on lines where PTC is not yet functioning has the same issue. It is even made worse because the railroads have frequently made public their concern about their potential liability for transporting these chemicals without the PTC concerns. It is very likely that railroads will refuse to transport these chemicals on lines that do not have approved PTC deployments.

The ‘easy solution’ to the problem is for Congress to extend the deadline. There would certainly be a great deal of opposition to such an extension from the safety community. There is currently a bill on the Senate side of the hill, S 650, that is awaiting floor action in that body. There is currently no bill being considered in the House. I expect that that will change as a result of this hearing.

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