Economy

Rail service crisis looms as Congress looks to modify safety law

Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, testifies at the National Transportation Safety Board on March 24, 2015. President Barack Obama nominated Feinberg in May to become the agency’s permanent chief.
Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, testifies at the National Transportation Safety Board on March 24, 2015. President Barack Obama nominated Feinberg in May to become the agency’s permanent chief. NTSB

President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the nation’s rail safety agency told lawmakers Thursday that the agency would hold railroads to a year-end deadline to install collision-avoidance technology even if it meant that freight and passengers could be left stranded.

Congress set a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for railroads to implement positive train control back in 2008. The Government Accountability Office reported Wednesday that few companies would actually make the deadline. That conclusion was no surprise: The GAO had warned Congress of it in another report two years ago.

While lawmakers sought guidance from Sarah Feinberg, the Federal Railroad Administration’s acting administrator, on what she thought they should do about it, she told them that whether and how to extend the deadline was up to them.

“We will enforce the law as of the deadline,” she told members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Last week, the nation’s largest railroads wrote the panel’s chairman, Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, that unless lawmakers extended the deadline, they would be forced to cease most, if not all, freight and passenger operations on Jan. 1.

At Thursday’s confirmation hearing for Feinberg, Thune said the impacts could be felt as soon as November, when the railroads have said they would start scaling down their operations in anticipation of the deadline.

“We have to recognize, we don’t have a lot of time to work with,” he said. “This is a huge disaster in the making.”

A broad, six-year transportation bill the Senate passed over the summer contains a three-year deadline extension. But it isn’t clear that the Senate can resolve its differences with the House of Representatives on the bigger bill by year’s end. A positive train control extension still could be attached to a stopgap bill.

Feinberg, who has led the rail agency since January and was formally nominated by Obama in May, noted that many carriers had made good progress on installing the system. But she said that the law Congress passed was very black-and-white and gave neither the agency nor the railroads any wiggle room.

In a July report, the agency said it would impose significant fines on railroads that violated the law.

“We’ve been pretty clear on what we will do on January 1,” she said.

Positive train control can automatically prevent trains from taking curves too fast or running past stop signals. Fatal accidents involving toxic cargoes and commuter trains in the past decade led Congress to mandate its installation in the Rail Safety Improvement Act in 2008.

The fatal derailment in May of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia renewed attention on the requirement. The train jumped the tracks at 106 mph on a curve limited to 50 mph. A version of the system was not installed on that track at the curve. Eight people were killed.

In their letters to Thune last week, railroads said they’d determined that they couldn’t legally move freight or passengers after the deadline passed. According to the GAO, most will need another three years to install positive train control, and some as long as five.

A large-scale suspension of rail service could jam already congested highways with more cars and trucks. It would raise costs for industries that depend on rail transportation and, ultimately, prices for consumers.

Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, said his state’s farmers rely almost entirely on rail service to export their crops. The state is also an energy producer, and along with neighboring North Dakota, moves oil from the Bakken shale formation by rail.

Daines said rail congestion last summer had already given the public a taste of what might be coming.

“The phones will be ringing. This will be a crisis,” he said. “It sure would be nice to avoid another crisis-driven event.”

A big rail service disruption would be “exhibit A on why Congress is so unpopular,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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