As things sit right now, railroad companies have until the end of the year to be in compliance with Positive Train Control. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle made it clear at a Thursday hearing that they have no desire to add flexibility to that timeline.
PTC – a safety mechanism that allows for remote shutdown of the trains carrying the nation’s freight, grain, and passengers – was supposed to be fully implemented by the end of 2015. But before that deadline came to pass, an extension was signed into law, giving rail companies an additional three years – until the end of 2018 – to have the technology fully implemented.
By all accounts, many companies appear to be making good progress. Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, offered a progress report of sorts in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. As of the end of 2017, he said within Class I Freight Railroads, a classification for the seven largest freight rail companies, PTC is installed on 78 percent of the locomotives and 97 percent of the needed radio towers. Most – 93 percent – of the devices needed to relay signals are also in place, and 87 percent of the employees that require training on the technology have received it.
Hearing witnesses and lawmakers didn’t sound as concerned about whether or not many of the nation’s largest freight rail companies would be able comply with the end-of-year deadline. There was, however, some pronounced unease about whether the same could be said for passenger carriers using the same tracks. Lawmakers from both parties made it pretty clear they don’t want to extend the current deadline.
“We’re going to kill more people because you’re not doing your job? No. We’re not going to extend PTC again if I have anything to say about it,” Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio, the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said at the hearing.
“I hear a lot about the cost and complexity,” he added, "Let’s think about the cost of lives that have been lost or could be lost in the near future because of the lack of PTC.”
Jeff Denham, the California Republican who chairs the subcommittee, also noted his frustration with the lack of communication coming from rail companies that might have an issue meeting the compliance deadline.
“There are a number of railroads that I’ve reached out to and said, ‘What do you need? Let me help you get through this grand process.’ And they’ve told us, ‘No, we’re fine,’” he said. In the meantime, grant money that could assist with compliance costs is either going unused or underused.
A number of lingering issues still need to be resolved before the end of the years to achieve full compliance, including software compatibility issues, labor and equipment availability, and a diminishing amount of time for contract negotiations to address equipment installation. There’s also the matter of how companies which have installed PTC on their tracks would treat companies with non-compliant trains.
No matter the issue, Denham said the companies need to be more vocal about issues they are facing to achieve full compliance, because Congress doesn’t appear to be excited about another extension.
“This 2018 deadline is a real deadline, and one we’ve got to address,” he said. “Safety is first in all of our transportation, but as of late there’s been way too many accidents. We can do better.”