Bill to Extend Safety System Deadline Would Avert Rail Shutdown, Help Metra
A measure introduced in the U.S. House on Wednesday seeks to avert the threatened year-end shutdown of the nation's freight and commuter railroads, including Metra.
Leaders of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said their bipartisan legislation would give U.S. railroads an additional three years to implement the congressionally mandated safety system known as positive train control.
The lawmakers acknowledged that the Dec. 31 deadline for installation of PTC on the vast majority of the railroads is not achievable, and that extending the period until the end of 2018 will prevent significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country.
"Railroads must implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner, and we need to give them the necessary time to do so," committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., one of the sponsors, said in a statement.
Without an extension, railroads say their crews would be prohibited by law from operating trains beyond that date. They say freight shipments will be halted, commuter lines will cease operations, and Amtrak service outside of portions of the Northeast Corridor will be suspended.
A shutdown could have a huge impact on Chicago, the nation's rail hub. Each day, the city has 500 freight trains pass through, Metra operates 753 trains, and 56 Amtrak trains come and go.
After attending a congressional briefing Wednesday in Washington, Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno said Metra "will do everything we can" to meet a 2018 deadline.
The agency has said previously that installing PTC will cost $350 million and won't be fully in place until at least mid-2019.
The bill would give the U.S. Transportation Department secretary the power to grant an additional 12-month extension if a railroad faces certain technical or operational challenges and shows "good faith efforts" to implement the safety system.
The measure was introduced as pressure heightened on House leaders to avert the pending shutdown. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., co-wrote a letter to House leadership signed by over 160 members urging an extension of the deadline.
"If freight trains don't run, trucks don't operate," Quigley said. "This is recession-threatening. This could shut down the economy."
Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., the senior member from Illinois on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill "will avoid (a) catastrophe while also ensuring that railroads continue to make progress on installing this important safety equipment."
Positive train control uses a network of GPS, radios, computers and other equipment to slow or stop speeding trains, prevent train collisions and override human errors.
Congress ordered the nation's railroads to install PTC in 2008 after the collision of a Los Angeles-area commuter train and a freight train. Twenty-five people were killed.
Railroads say PTC technology is too complex and expensive to be installed by the deadline. The Association of American Railroads says railroads have already spent over $5 billion on PTC development and deployment.
Officials say the system would have prevented crashes like the Amtrak wreck May 12 in Philadelphia that killed eight people, as well as two derailments in 2003 and 2005 on Metra's Rock Island tracks on Chicago's South Side.
The Federal Railroad Administration and the Government Accountability Office have also recommended extending the implementation deadline.
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