Railroads Threaten to Shut Down if Congress Doesn’t Extend Safety Deadline

BNSF, other large railroads tell federal officials that if deadline for Positive Train Control installation not extended they would curtail service at the end of the year

By Justin Franz
A BNSF Railway freight train runs along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Officials with America’s largest freight railroads, including BNSF Railway, have informed the government and shippers they will start curtailing service if Congress does not extend the year-end deadline for the installation of a safety system called Positive Train Control.

Industry officials warn if service is interrupted there could be major disruptions across the country’s rail network, including in Montana, which would have a huge impact on the economy. According to the Association of American Railroads, the U.S. freight rail system moves 40 percent of all intercity freight.

Following a fatal head-on wreck in California that killed 25 people in 2008, Congress mandated that all main line railroads hauling passengers or toxic-by-inhalation materials install safety systems that prevent similar collisions. Positive Train Control (PTC) technology is designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents occur, including head-on collisions and derailments due to excessive speed. The legislation required that PTC be installed across the country before Dec. 31, 2015.

Through 2014, railroad companies have spent more than $5 billion on PTC development and deployment. However, the system has only been fully implemented on 5,151 miles of track, far short of the 82,042 required by Congress. The technology must also be installed on locomotives and through 2014, only 3,376 were equipped, about 15 percent of the fleet. Despite the delays, Federal Railroad Administration officials said earlier this summer they would start penalizing railroads that miss the PTC deadline.

Mike Trevino, a spokesperson with BNSF, said the PTC system is incredibly complex and that it can take months to install and perfect. He said the system has been installed on most of the railroad’s lines through Northwest Montana but that it is still being tested.

On Sept. 16, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ audit and investigations branch, released a report saying it was unlikely that PTC would be installed before the Dec. 31 deadline. In July, the U.S. Senate passed a highway-funding bill that extended the deadline on a case-by-case basis, but the House of Representatives has yet to take action on an extension. Because of that, railroads are warning customers to prepare for a “worst-case scenario,” according to Association of American Railroads President Edward Hamberger.

“Congress can’t wait until November or December when the clock is about to run out,” he said. “If lawmakers want to avert a massive disruption of passenger and freight transport this fall, which will inflict significant hardships on businesses and passengers alike, it must take action now to extend the deadline.”

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke have all supported extending the deadline.

Tester said he was especially worried about how a shutdown could impact Montana’s farmers.

“Montana’s agricultural producers and our economy depend on safe, reliable transportation,” Tester told the Beacon. “We need to implement this new technology, but we should do it in a way that makes sense and doesn’t disrupt service.”

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