A PTC "fix" won't be easy

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, September 27, 2015

I’ll begin with this observation: If our political system can shut down the U.S. government repeatedly, it’s altogether possible it can allow the U.S. railroad network to close up shop, too, however briefly. That said, I think rational minds will ultimately prevail and extend the deadline to install positive train control for another three years past this December 31. Just don’t bet your last buck on it, and I’m here to tell you why.

As background, Congress in 2008 enacted a law mandating that a positive train control system protect against collisions and speed violations on all trackage that sees passenger trains or toxic-if-inhaled freight traffic. That amounts to about 60,000 route miles that handles the vast majority of all freight traffic. The Federal Railroad Administration vows to heavily fine railroads for operating any trains over PTC-designated tracks if the system is not operational by year’s end. Acting FRA administrator Sarah Feinberg implied that fines of $25,000 for every train operated would be imposed.

Freight railroads, utterly unprepared to have PTC in place by the deadline, have interpreted the Railway Safety Act of 2008 a couple of ways. BNSF Railway concluded that no train can operated over PTC-designated routes after December 31 if PTC isn’t turned on. Union Pacific and CSX Transportation seem to believe they can be in compliance by banning passenger trains and TIH shipments on such tracks. In testimony to Congress recently, Feinberg seemed to agree with BNSF’s all-inclusive interpretation.

What the railroads agree on is that they will effectively shut down rather than violate the law. It’s corporate suicide to do otherwise. To give you one example of the impact, entire subdivisions of BNSF’s two transcontinental lines (from Chicago to California and Washington) won’t be compliant. Neither will sections of its busy route from Chicago to Texas. There are workarounds, BNSF has said, but the railroad will quickly become paralyzed. Imagine that on a national scale. Imagine Metro North Railroad not running into Grand Central Terminal. Imagine Long Island commuters left standing at the station. Imagine Chicago’s commuter rail network limping along. Imagine stores running out of goods and electric utilities running out of coal.

The problem is that while you and I can imagine all this, it’s not really seeping through the minds of members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate passed a transportation-funding bill in July with a provision that would extend the PTC deadline at the discretion of the U.S. secretary of transportation for up to three years. But it’s a huge bill of which PTC extension is only a tiny part.

It’s not that the House has to agree to extend the PTC deadline; a majority of members has to agree on hundreds of other provisions utterly unrelated to PTC. To be blunt, I think the odds of the House approving the Senate version of the transportation bill are slim to none, and the chance of its passing its own version (which would have to be reconciled with the Senate bill) aren’t that great.

The Association of American Railroads seems to agree with me. It is lobbying for separate legislation that deals with a PTC extension on a standalone basis. To which I say: Good luck!

Listen, if you read the reactions to my blog BNSF: We will shut down, you will find a lot of people think the railroad industry is faking it, that it has screwed up the installation of PTC, that it is dragging its feet, that it is challenging the U.S. Congress to a fistfight, in effect. Believe me, that attitude is present in Congress, too. Look for it on the Democratic side. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, there is a populist faction that thinks big business is way too cozy with the federal government, in effect, feeding off it. And anyway, Republicans are too busy fighting each other (bye-bye, my friend John Boehner) to pay attention to legislative duties. So put all this together and you can sense the magnitude of the problem. Logic says we’ll get past this and plod on. But a lot of things have to happen first.—Fred W. Frailey

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