Some railroads are not on track to meet a safety system deadline

An Amtrak train stops at Alexandria, Va., on May 13, 2017. Several of the nation’s railroads won’t meet a 2018 deadline to install a collision avoidance system Congress required a decade ago.
An Amtrak train stops at Alexandria, Va., on May 13, 2017. Several of the nation’s railroads won’t meet a 2018 deadline to install a collision avoidance system Congress required a decade ago. McClatchy

Four of the nation’s commuter railroads are not on track to meet an end-of-next-year deadline to fully implement a collision-avoidance system Congress required nearly a decade ago.

Three of the country’s largest freight railroads will not be able to finish their systems until 2020, according to reports filed this month with the Federal Railroad Administration.

That’s in spite of lawmakers extending the original deadline for completing positive train control, originally December 2015, to December 2018. A spending bill lawmakers approved earlier this month included $199 million in funding to help the commuter railroads get the equipment installed on locomotives and track, and to train employees.

The system automatically slows or stop trains to prevent collisions and to prevent trains from taking curves too fast. It also slows or stop trains when railroad workers are present.

“It’s moving incredibly slowly,” said Sarah Feinberg, who was a Federal Railroad Administration chief in the Obama administration. “That money should be going out the door.”

While the railroads expressed confidence in meeting the requirements, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., one of the industry’s sharpest critics, said he was “deeply concerned that we’re going to see déjà vu all over again.”

In the months leading up to the original 2015 deadline, the railroads threatened to shut down until Congress granted the extension.

“The history here is that the railroads seek one delay after another,” Blumenthal said.

Railroads have cited technological and legal complexities for the delays in rolling out the technology on 60,000 miles of track. Freight carriers have also cited cost as a factor. To date, they’ve spent about $8 billion of their own funds on PTC deployment.

Passenger railroads will wind up spending an estimated $3.5 billion on their systems. They’re getting help from the federal government in the form of grants and loans.

Most railroads will have their PTC systems complete by the end of next year. Six railroads, however, won’t have PTC fully implemented until 2020: the three freight railroads and three commuter lines:

▪ Canadian National, a large Canadian freight carrier with extensive operations in the central U.S.

▪ CSX, the largest freight carrier in the Eastern U.S. and host railroad for Amtrak and commuter lines.

▪ Norfolk Southern, the primary rival to CSX in the East and also a host of Amtrak and commuter trains.

▪ Chicago’s Metra, the country’s fourth largest commuter-rail system.

▪ Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the country’s sixth largest commuter-rail system.

▪ Florida’s SunRail, a commuter line that serves the Orlando area.

Trinity Railway Express, a commuter railroad that connects Fort Worth and Dallas, will have its system complete in 2019.

A collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train in southern California in 2008 that killed 25 people was the impetus for Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act, the law that required the safety system.

The National Transportation Safety Board had been calling for such a system since 1970.

Additional accidents since Congress required positive train control have only increased the sense of urgency for installing it.

An Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia in 2015, killing eight passengers. The train had sped into a 50 mph curve at more than 100 mph.

In the Bronx in 2013, a Metro-North Commuter train derailed on a 30 mph curve at 82 mph. Four passengers were killed.

“We cannot have delays getting commuter railroads the money they need,” Feinberg said.

Metro-North and Amtrak will have PTC ready by the end of next year, according to their most recent progress reports.

Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy group in Washington, said the nation’s largest freight carriers were all on schedule to have their PTC systems installed by the 2018 deadline, though the law allows carriers until 2020 to make the systems fully operational.

Richard White, acting president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, which represents commuter railroads and transit systems, said in February that commuter railroads were making “significant progress” on installing PTC.

Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for Florida-based CSX, said the railroad would have all the necessary technology deployed by the end of 2018 and a fully operational system in place in 2020.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis