CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
Feb. 2, 2013 – 3:16 p.m.
Delays Continue for Rail Safety Measures
By Nathan Hurst, CQ Staff
It took a California train crash that claimed 25 lives in 2008 before Congress required railroads to install anti-collision technology that the National Transportation Safety Board had been recommending for nearly 20 years. And the financial cost is still slowing things down.
The head-on collision of a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight in a suburb of Los Angeles shocked the nation and galvanized Congress. Within a month, lawmakers revived a moribund rail safety bill, added it to an Amtrak reauthorization and sent the entire package to President George W. Bush. The centerpiece of the measure was the requirement that railroads install systems by 2015 to automatically halt trains that run through signals — technology that probably would have prevented the California accident.
Railroads, though, have shuddered at the $14 billion that the Federal Railroad Administration estimates it would cost to fully install a “positive train control” or PTC system on some 60,000 miles of track.
And with Congress gearing up to write a new authorization bill for rail programs this year, some lawmakers in both chambers will try to delay the program. House Republicans — including
In the end, conferees didn’t touch the 2015 deadline, but House aides and industry lobbyists expect a provision delaying the mandate to be part of the rail bill this year.
“We’re not trying to get out of the mandate,” says Ed Hamberger, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads. “We just want to get it right.”
Steep Grade Ahead
The railroad industry says a rush to install the positive train control systems may stunt development of more-effective and more-expansive train safety technologies. The industry claims that every $20 of investment will produce only $1 in benefits and says many of the busiest passenger rail systems can barely afford to keep up with regular maintenance, let alone install new technology.
Safety advocates, though, contend that undue delays in introducing the technology will inevitably cost lives. The NTSB reiterated the importance of an anti-collision system by including it in its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements last year. The board says it has investigated 15 rail accidents with 50 fatalities since 2005 — including a 2009 collision between two Washington Metrorail trains, with nine fatalities — that could have been prevented with PTC systems.
“We are disappointed about possible delay,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said in a speech on rail safety last year, describing PTC technology as a “fail safe” system to back up locomotive engineers.
“In our investigations, the NTSB always looks at the human, the machine and the environment,” she said. “What we are finding is that while the machines that railroads use are built to be more reliable and the environment that railroaders work in is designed with more redundancies, the railroader is still a human. Humans are fallible and make mistakes, yet operational accidents — whether on the mainline or in yards or at grade crossings — can be prevented with technology, notably positive train control.”
Delays Continue for Rail Safety Measures
Positive train control systems are designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, derailments and other accidents by stopping trains that run through signals or that exceed speed restrictions. The 2008 law required that the systems be installed on passenger lines and sections of the major freight railroads that carry hazardous materials. When the law was enacted, the mandate was estimated to cover about 70,000 miles of track.
The law leaves it to railroads to adopt the technology that best fits their needs. Most are installing systems that build sensors, signals and transponders into existing track. Speed restrictions and other information are transmitted to trains as they cross transponders. If operators don’t respond, equipment on the train will automatically slow or stop the train.
A more elaborate technology, known as communications-based train control, uses global positioning to track train locations and speeds. These systems, which are used on some European railroads with high-speed passenger service, offer potential advantages for railroads because they would allow more efficient spacing between trains, saving fuel and boosting capacity.
But they also are more expensive. The Congressional Research Service recently reported that no U.S. railroads are installing the more sophisticated communications-based systems because of the cost.
“The technical challenges are immense: the radio spectrum, the guts, the brains, the back-office software, the personnel to install the thousands and thousands of wayside units, the need to retrofit locomotives,” Hamberger of the railroad association says about PTC. “It’s not an off-the-shelf technology.”
Other technical issues that should be addressed include interoperability — for instance, when trains operated by smaller freight companies share the tracks and transponders of larger railroads. Rail operators also would have to acquire the radio spectrum the systems would need.
The price tag for deploying PTC technology is roughly equal to the railroad industry’s total annual capital spending, the CRS reported. Congress has declined to appropriate money for a $50 million grant program that the 2008 law authorized to help railroads pay for anti-collision systems.
Michael P. Melaniphy, president of the American Public Transportation Association, which represents transit and commuter rail systems, told Senate appropriators last year that public commuter rail systems alone were on the hook for more than $2 billion in PTC costs.
While freight railroads can pass their costs on to customers, Melaniphy said, state and local governments are expected to foot the bill for commuter railroads, many of which, Melaniphy testified, “are being forced to delay critical system safety state-of-good-repair projects in order to install PTC by 2015.”
Officials with New York’s Metro-North and Long Island Railroad commuter systems say they will have to divert $750 million from capital upgrades that would improve capacity and reduce crowding to meet the deadline. Howard R. Permut, Metro-North’s president, last year warned New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors that the cost was likely to balloon to $1 billion.
Likewise, Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority expects to divert $300 million from capital improvements to meet the 2015 deadline.
But Richard Katz, a member the board of directors of Southern California’s Metrolink, told the Los Angeles Times that the $200 million his agency expects to spend on positive train control is worth it to avoid a repeat of the 2008 crash.
“Every year that we delay, more people are going to die that don’t have to,” he said.
Delays Continue for Rail Safety Measures
Relaxing the Deadline
Even rail passenger safety advocates recognize the difficulties in meeting the ambitious 2015 deadline, though.
“We’re concerned that the rule-making process is paring back a lot of the potential safety promise,” says Robert J. Stewart, chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. For example, he says the rush to meet the target date has led regulators to write rules that will not require positive train control systems to protect against rear-end collisions.
The rail passengers group maintains that relaxing the deadline would avoid forcing railroads to invest in less-than-adequate anti-collision equipment at the expense of other needed maintenance and expansion. The group supported last year’s Senate plan to allow regulators to give railroads extensions.
House authorizers wanted to go even further and included language in their version of the highway bill that would have pushed the deadline back to 2020. Although the House bill never came to the floor, the extension was supported by Shuster, the new Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman. Aides and lobbyists expect the five-year extension, or something similar, to resurface in this year’s rail authorization bill.
The Federal Railroad Administration, meanwhile, asked in a congressionally required progress report last year for authority to certify incremental positive train control systems still under development. The agency also wants permission to let railroads introduce alternative technologies to meet the mandate.
Ross Capon, the National Association of Railroad Passengers president, says any delay should be coupled with requirements for more stringent safety standards — including the mandate for technology to prevent rear-end collisions.
“We’re in the middle,” Capon says. “We understand the concern of railroads having to meet an unfunded mandate, but we also see an opportunity to fix the existing rules.”
FOR FURTHER READING: 2012 surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141), 2012 CQ Weekly, p. 1508; Amtrak high-speed rail, 2011 CQ Weekly, p. 1677; rail safety improvement and Amtrak reauthorization (PL 110-432), 2008 CQ Almanac, p. 3-16.