The Federal Railroad Administration plans to impose big penalties on railroads that fail to meet a year-end deadline to install a new collision avoidance system, including more than 70 percent of the nation’s commuter railroads.
Congress mandated Positive Train Control in 2008, but most of the nation’s commuter and freight railroads won’t have the system ready by Dec. 31. The technology is required for about 60,000 miles of track, including those that carry passengers or chemicals that are poisonous or toxic by inhalation.
A push in Congress to extend the deadline by three to five years has stalled, and lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to the Capitol until next month.
In a Friday report to lawmakers, the FRA said it planned to enforce the mandate they set in 2008. As of Jan. 1, 2016, railroads that have failed to install Positive Train Control on the required track segments face fines up to $25,000 a day for each violation.
“The potential civil penalties that FRA could assess are substantial,” the agency wrote.
Only 29 percent of the nation’s commuter railroads will meet the Dec. 31 deadline, according to the American Public Transportation Association, and the rest may need one to five more years.
“Despite the commuter rail industry’s best efforts,” said Michael Melaniphy, the association’s president and CEO, “implementing PTC nationwide by the end of this year is not possible.”
FRA has requested funding from Congress every year since 2011 to help commuter railroads install Positive Train Control, including $825 million in President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget. Lawmakers have only provided $42 million to date.
“Congress has not provided a guaranteed, reliable revenue stream for implementation on commuter railroads,” the agency wrote.
The agency has used other tools to help commuter railroads, including $650 million in grant funds, $400 million of which came from the 2009 economic stimulus.
In May, FRA issued a $967 million loan to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the nation’s largest commuter rail agency, to install Positive Train Control on the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road.
Melaniphy said that commuter railroads have spent $950 million to date on the system, but need nearly $3.5 billion to get the job done.
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended the system since 1969, but Congress didn’t require it until the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
Twenty-five people were killed in August of that year when a Metrolink commuter train smashed head-on into a freight train near Chatsworth, Calif.
Positive Train Control could have automatically stopped the train before it ran past a red signal. Metrolink is one of the few commuter railroads that will meet the Dec. 31 deadline.
In other more recent fatal crashes, trains approached curves at two or three times the appropriate speed, and the system could automatically have slowed them down.
Four people died in December 2013 when a Metro-North commuter train jumped the tracks north of New York City. The train was traveling 82 mph at a curve restricted to 30 mph.
In May, an Amtrak Northeast Corridor train barreled into a 50 mph curve north of Philadelphia at 106 mph and derailed. Eight people were killed.
Amtrak will meet the Dec. 31 deadline for installing Positive Train Control along the Northeast Corridor, which it owns. On other routes, it will depend on freight railroads, some of which will be ready, while some won’t.
According to FRA, only freight hauler BNSF and two commuter railroads, Metrolink and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, have submitted safety plans required under the 2008 federal law.