Unnecessary standoff over PTC reflects outmoded attitude towards railroads

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, June 12, 2015

A standoff continues between the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), on the one hand, and two terminal railroad companies on the other, that threatens to result in the suspension of passenger train service to the Show Me State’s two biggest cities if not resolved. It centers around the mandate in the federal law passed in 2008 that all railroads carrying passenger trains install Positive Train Control (PTC) by December 31 of this year, but without any financial assistance from the government. PTC has the potential to offer tremendous safety benefits, but at a large cost that so far has been borne by freight railroads that host passenger trains, cash-strapped commuter railroads that own track, and Amtrak (on the trackage it owns). While all six Class Is that host Amtrak have at least begun to undertake PTC installation, none is likely to complete it by the deadline (with the possible exception of BNSF), owing both to the cost (which the railroads have to take away from other capital investment priorities) and to difficulties acquiring broadcast spectrum, getting regulatory approval from the Federal Communications Commission, and agreeing to interoperable technology and agreements with other railroads that have trackage rights.

A Missouri River Runner consist lays over across the platform from the westbound Southwest Chief, making its late evening stop at Kansas City, MO's Union Station. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
The two Missouri railroads, the Kansas City Terminal Railway and Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, are refusing to pay the cost of equipping their lines, which respectively host six and ten daily Amtrak trains, with PTC. While these railroads are supported by the Class I freight carriers, which are their biggest customers, they themselves are small-budget operations. Both railroads have sent bills for the cost of installing PTC to the FRA and MoDOT, but the agencies refuse to pay, saying it should be the railroads’ responsibility “because of their freight operations” — in spite of the fact that the mandate, which the railroads had no control over, only applies to these terminal railroads because they host Amtrak trains.

If this unnecessary dispute results in the suspension of passenger train service — which, owing to the central locations of St. Louis and Kansas City, would cause a major disruption to Amtrak’s national network — it would sadly epitomize America’s outmoded attitude towards railroads in general, and passenger trains in particular. In other industrialized countries, it is unquestionably the government’s job to ensure a safe, robust and efficient passenger train network, just as it is government’s job to provide a safe, extensive road network and ensure the safety of air travel. The latter two are goals to which taxpayer dollars are dedicated with only the slightest opposition. 

Yet, in spite of the fact that PTC’s benefits accrue almost entirely to the general public — to train passengers and to communities that would be impacted by a major PTC-preventable railroad accident — our federal and state governments maintain that private companies should fully bear its costs. Private railroads will obtain some benefits from this system, and for that reason it may be fair to ask them to pitch in a small portion of the costs. However, the business benefits of PTC are limited by the fact that, as currently designed, it will merely be an overlay on top of existing signal systems, rather than a replacement for this system that could allow for more efficient dispatching through the use of movable blocks and allowing higher-speed operations of both freight and passenger trains. Therefore, the federal government must find room in next fiscal year’s budget to fund the lion’s share of the remaining required PTC installation and end these disputes once and for all.

There is a political stalemate that keeps Americans from enjoying a world-class passenger train system that coexists with an even safer and healthier freight rail network. It has its roots deep in American history, dating to the late 19th-century “robber baron” era when railroads (which then lacked effective competition from other modes) were seen as a monopolistic force to be reined in by government. That attitude lingers even as the transportation sector has evolved and railroads economic, social and environmental benefits have come into sharper focus. Elected and regulatory officials’ attitudes towards railroads must now shift from “You’re on your own, but you need to do X, Y and Z with little to no government assistance” to “You are our partners in providing a safe transportation service that has both a public purpose and private benefits.” 

If our elected officials were willing to invest adequate public funds in capital improvements like PTC, capacity expansion, station improvements, multi-modal connectivity and new passenger train equipment — the same way we do for highways and aviation — then perhaps private railroads would see government as more of a partner than an adversary and would be inclined to reciprocate.

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