Congress Extends Deadline for Train Safety Technology; We’ll Find Out Why on Nov. 20

The White House today signed a three-week extension of the highway and transit program into law, marking the 35th short-term extension of surface transportation trust fund over the past six years.

The bill also includes a three-year extension of the deadline for implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, a smart-control technology that helps stop train collisions and derailments before they happen.

Thousands of NARP members have been waging a campaign to ensure that trains would keep running on January 1, the day after the PTC deadline was scheduled to go into effect. These NARP members were working to protect access to the trains tens of millions of passengers rely on every day.

At the same time, a few score of well-paid lobbyists for the freight railroads were working behind the scenes to ensure that their industries could keep their shipments moving and delay implementation of this life-saving technology.

By November 20, when the three-week transportation extension comes to an end, American passengers will find out who Congress was listening to.

The rail industry—both passenger and freight—has understood for more than a year that it would not be able to meet a December 31, 2015, deadline for implementing PTC. A combination of technical and regulatory challenges, poor federal funding, and industry heel-dragging has hindered installation work.

Having tracked these developments, NARP issued a statement in February 2015 calling for a two-part solution. The first step called for a short-term extension. NARP understood that the rail industry’s inability to meet the December deadline would have meant paralysis across the entire network on January 1, 2015. No Amtrak trains. No commuter trains. Chemicals shifting from rails to crowded highways—or not moving at all, threatening our economy and critical public services (does your community rely on chlorine to provide potable water?).

The second step called for provisions to ensure that PTC is implemented in a responsible way, with public safeguards to ensure that railroads will meet the new deadline. NARP also outlined proposals that would maximize PTC’s benefits to passengers and the U.S. economy, such as rear-end trainset detection. PTC is a safety technology that the National Transportation Safety Board has been calling for since 1969. It’s a system that would have saved the lives of 25 passengers in Chatsworth, California, in 2008; saved the lives of four passengers in New York in 2013, and saved the lives of eight in Pennsylvania in 2015—a total of 288 deaths and 6,574 people injured since the NTSB first issued its call.

However, in addition to safety, PTC could transform the railroad industry in the U.S. If properly implemented by freight railroads, this technology could bring train dispatching into the 21st century, increasing capacity and decreasing delays that have been crimping Amtrak ridership and shippers for years.

So NARP is relieved a PTC extension has been enacted. We can’t let disappointment over another PTC deadline extension mask the fact that even with today's technology trains are 17 times safer than driving on highways. And being forced onto overcrowded highways was the best-case scenario for train commuters if the PTC deadline wasn’t extended; train passengers with limited or no access to cars wouldn’t have been able to make the trips that are necessary to their everyday life at all.

However, an extension is only the first step. Congress must now move to ensure the American public can count on the protection of fully realized PTC technology by passing the DRIVE Act (HR 22), the multiyear passenger rail bill passed by the Senate in July.

The DRIVE Act included an additional $200 million to help commuter railroads and Amtrak install PTC. Unlike freight railroads, which have seen massive increases to their profit margins hauling crude oil in recent years, these passenger railroads don’t have huge capital budgets to address these issues.

The DRIVE Act also steadily increases passenger rail’s authorized funding levels, from $1.4 billion in 2016 to $2.8 billion in 2019. That’s not enough to meet the demands of an aging Amtrak fleet struggling to accommodate explosive ridership growth—a 50 percent increase over the past 15 years—but it sets funding on the right course.

Passengers won’t have long to wait to find out why Congress passed the PTC extension. On November 20, Congress will be obligated to extend the Highway Trust Fund, and find an infusion of general fund subsidies to keep the highway program from going bankrupt. If Congress follows the map laid out by the DRIVE Act—which includes additional funding for PTC implementation, increased funding for Amtrak, an emphasis on the National Network, and provisions for new and restored train service—then they’ll have proved this week’s PTC extension was the first step towards a safer, more efficient U.S. transportation network.

If Congress extends the highway bill while stripping passenger rail provisions, we’ll be forced to come to a different conclusion: this is just another special interest carve-out for a powerful industry lobby.

And if that’s the case, passengers will have to think long and hard about what their next step is in ending Congressional dysfunction, and forcing our elected officials to truly represent the interests of their constituents.

Contact your elected officials if you want them to take the next step in creating a safer, more efficient passenger rail network!