Illinois Democrats Urge Extension on Train Safety System Deadline
Chicago-area members of Congress on Monday raised the possibility — albeit remote — of a shutdown of the nation's rail system, including Metra commuter service, if lawmakers fail to extend a year-end deadline for railroads to install an expensive high-tech safety system.
Under a 2008 federal law, the nation's major freight and passenger railroads were ordered to install a system known as positive train control by Dec. 31. Using a network of GPS, radios, computers and antennas, PTC is designed to slow or stop speeding trains and override human errors.
Officials say the system would have prevented accidents like the Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia on May 12 that killed eight people, as well as two derailments that occurred in 2003 and 2005 on Metra's Rock Island tracks on the South Side.
Speaking at Metra's LaSalle Street Station on Monday as Rock Island trains unloaded passengers behind them, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Reps. Dan Lipinski and Mike Quigley called out the Republican leadership of Congress for failing to pass a long-term federal transportation bill that they said could provide money for PTC.
"If railroads do not have positive train control implemented by the end of this year, they could be fined $25,000 a day, and they could potentially be shut down," Lipinski said. "We have to avoid this."
Lipinski said members of Congress are contemplating a measure that would grant the railroads a case-by-case extension of the Dec. 31 deadline, if they can show they are acting in "good faith" to install the system and demonstrate progress.
But some members of Congress are reluctant to waive the federal safety mandate, which was put into effect after a train accident in Chatsworth, Calif., said Quigley. That September 2008 crash left more than 20 people dead.
"There are some members who are reticent because the next week or month, there could be a horrible accident in their own district," Quigley said.
Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said the agency is not likely to have PTC installed on all 11 lines and 1,200 miles of track until 2019. Metra estimates that it will cost more than $350 million to install, and perhaps $15 million a year to operate.
The installation is especially complicated because Metra's system needs to be interoperable with the six major freight railroads that run through Chicago, Oberman said.
Metra runs 753 trains a day, freight railroads have 500 trains, and Amtrak operates another 100 or so.
"For PTC to work, all of these trains have to talk to each other because they are constantly intersecting with each other or running on the same tracks," Oberman said. "The challenge is overwhelming."
Lipinski and Quigley have proposed a bill that would provide $200 million a year for PTC systems. That bill, however, is bottled up in the House.
Industry officials say the cost of installing PTC on the nation's freight railroads would be $9 billion, with an additional $3.5 billion needed for passenger railroads.
Only about 29 percent of the U.S. railroad system will have PTC by the end of the year, officials said.
Durbin took aim at the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and called on them to come up with a transportation bill that would restore solvency to the Highway Trust Fund.
This fund could provide money for railroads like Metra to pay for PTC, Durbin said, instead of diverting cash from maintenance and other infrastructure needs.
Congress faces a July 30 deadline for passing a transportation bill. But there have already been 33 temporary extensions to that deadline.
"It is time for the Republican leadership in Congress to truly lead," Durbin said.
He said the Transportation Department faces a "mini-shutdown" and the possibility of laying off 4,200 employees.
The problem, Durbin said, is that the Republican leadership refuses to consider new revenue, generally considered a tax increase, for the Highway Trust Fund.
"There are those who would not vote for a tax for a fire hose to save their own burning home," Durbin said.
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