Congress working on rail safety issue threatening grain, fertilizer movement

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 2, 2015 - Key lawmakers involved in transportation issues are working to come up with a compromise that would push back the current end-of-year deadline for implementation of a rail safety system - avoiding a threatened disruption of grain and fertilizer deliveries.

In the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, Congress directed rail providers to install Positive Train Control (PTC) on rail lines that carry passengers or hazardous materials. Despite the seven-year warning and the allocation of what the Association of American Railroads calls “enormous human and financial resources.” Railroads say they won't be able to have the technology fully implemented by Dec. 31.

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With that in mind, House and Senate leaders are working on a possible compromise that would extend the PTC implementation deadline until the end of 2018.

“I hope what's going to happen in the next few days is our staffs sit down and figure out if we can find the common ground and find something that we can move over here,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Oct. 1. “If we get in a situation where we're ping-ponging this thing back and forth, that's not going to be a good outcome.”

The Senate passed language in July that included an extension of the PTC deadline, and earlier this week, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leadership introduced the Positive Train Control Enforcement and Implementation Act (H.R. 3651), which would push back the deadline three years. In a statement, committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said extending the PTC deadline “is essential to preventing significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country.”

Ag groups think so too. Rail service providers have publicly stated that they plan to stop service on certain lines to avoid breaking federal law if the deadline is not extended. That could put grain and fertilizer delivery at risk starting at the beginning of November, according to a coalition of more than 40 national and state commodity and agriculture-related groups.


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“Failure to secure an extension by October 31, 2015, will have severe and far-reaching consequences,” the groups said in a letter this week. The groups call on Congress to pass an extension “no later than October 31st,” saying that logistical decisions such as facility closures and removal of tank cars from the system are made “well before December.”

Thune, who sits on the Senate agriculture committee and chairs the Senate committee dealing with transportation, said there are differences between the two chambers' approaches to extending the deadline but called those differences “reconcilable.” He said he sensed “a lot of momentum building behind fixing this” in both chambers and in both parties, saying an “aspirational deadline” is for a resolution by the middle of October.

There's no indication if the parties involved will be pushing a standalone bill or including the measure in a highway funding bill currently being negotiated.  Thune said an agreement could be attached to the highway bill “if the highway bill moves.” Current highway legislation is set to expire at the end of the month.

PTC is a safety system designed to automatically stop a train to help avoid collisions and other accidents. Some have compared the huge undertaking required to install PTC to the industry's switch from steam to diesel power, saying it is a huge shift and massive undertaking for the industry.

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