Economy

Trains to stop if safety deadline not extended, railroads tell lawmakers

A Metra commuter train arrives in Aurora, Ill., from downtown Chicago on Aug. 19, 2014. The trains operate on a BNSF line, and service may stop on Dec. 31 if Congress doesn’t extend the deadline for the railroad to install a new safety system.
A Metra commuter train arrives in Aurora, Ill., from downtown Chicago on Aug. 19, 2014. The trains operate on a BNSF line, and service may stop on Dec. 31 if Congress doesn’t extend the deadline for the railroad to install a new safety system. McClatchy

The chief executives of the country’s largest railroads this week told lawmakers that they would suspend passenger and freight service at year’s end if Congress doesn’t extend a deadline to install a collision-avoidance system.

Most of the nation’s commuter and freight railroads will not meet the Dec. 31 deadline for positive train control. The bulk of Amtrak and commuter railroads across the country operate over routes owned by the freight carriers.

In separate letters Wednesday to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, the executives from BNSF, Union Pacific and CSX wrote that the current law, passed in 2008, does not give them any legal flexibility and announced their plans to embargo trains by the end of December.

“We simply don’t see another option,” wrote Union Pacific President and CEO Lance Fritz.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act required positive train control on routes carrying intercity passengers, commuters and chemicals that are poisonous or toxic by inhalation.

“We do not, at this juncture, believe we can undertake the legal exposure that would result from continuing those operations after the statutory deadline,” wrote Michael Ward, chairman and CEO of CSX.

BNSF president and CEO Carl Ice said the impact could be even more widespread.

“Our legal analysis calls into question whether we legally may operate any freight or passenger service on such lines,” he wrote.

Both railroads warned that their contracts with commuter railroads and Amtrak require them to operate in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

CSX said a suspension of Amtrak service on its network would displace millions of passengers and require them to seek alternative transportation.

The railroad carries 32,000 daily riders in the Washington, D.C., area. In Chicago, a suspension of Metra service by BNSF could affect the busiest commuter route in the region, one that serves almost 69,000 riders a day.

Commuter trains in Minneapolis and Seattle also use BNSF tracks. So do popular short-distance Amtrak corridors in Washington, California and Illinois.

Union Pacific hosts Amtrak corridor trains in California, Missouri and Illinois.

All three railroads host a fair number of Amtrak long-distance trains, including the Empire Builder between the Twin Cities and the Pacific Northwest and Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief on BNSF; the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight on Union Pacific; and the Auto Train on CSX from Virginia to Florida.

Christina Leeds, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, said that no freight railroad had notified Amtrak of its intent to suspend passenger service on a track that isn’t compliant.

Deadly accidents in the past decade involving both passengers and toxic chemicals led Congress to require positive train control, which can automatically prevent a train from entering a curve too fast or running past a stop signal.

A commuter train derailment in New York in 2013 and an Amtrak crash in Philadelphia this year renewed attention on the requirement. Amtrak has told regulators that the lines it owns in the Northeast will be equipped by the current deadline. But most other carriers have said they need until 2018, if not beyond, to finish the job.

All three railroads noted the progress they’ve made on installing the system, as well as the challenges. All expect to invest a total around $2 billion each, including on-board and trackside wireless communication hardware, as well as updated signals.

CSX said it will need until 2018 to equip all of its locomotives and complete the signal replacements.

BNSF said it expected to have a “significant portion” of the system implemented by the current deadline.

Union Pacific expects to have the system “fully installed” by the end of 2018.

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