Economy

Amtrak: Suspension of trains could start in mid-December

An Amtrak train stops at Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 6, 2015. If Congress doesn’t extend a year-end deadline for railroads to install positive train control, Amtrak’s president and CEO told lawmakers that passenger trains could be suspended beginning in mid-December.
An Amtrak train stops at Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 6, 2015. If Congress doesn’t extend a year-end deadline for railroads to install positive train control, Amtrak’s president and CEO told lawmakers that passenger trains could be suspended beginning in mid-December. McClatchy

The “vast majority” of Amtrak’s network will be inoperable after Dec. 31 if Congress doesn’t extend a deadline to meet a safety mandate, the passenger railroad’s president and CEO wrote the Senate Commerce Committee.

Joe Boardman told the panel’s chairman, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that Amtrak would begin notifying passengers of a possible service disruption on Dec. 1 and would begin suspending service in mid-December.

Legislation in Congress would give Amtrak, freight and commuter railroads until 2018 to finish installing positive train control, a collision-avoidance system required by a 2008 law.

Boardman said the railroad had spent $162 million since 2008 to comply with the law.

Amtrak carried 31 million riders in 2014, two-thirds of those outside the Northeast. Though Amtrak may be able to operate some trains in the Northeast after the deadline, a shutdown of the rest of its system could displace the majority of its passengers.

Most of Amtrak’s 21,000-mile network operates over freight railroads. The largest of those wrote Thune in September that they wouldn’t meet the current deadline and anticipated having to suspend service.

That could bring Amtrak’s long-distance trains to a halt, in addition to short-distance, state-supported corridor trains in California, Illinois, Missouri, Washington, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Six Amtrak routes operate over track owned by smaller freight railroads that are exempt from the positive train control requirement. However, those trains also use tracks that are required to have the system, making it unlikely that any could operate after Dec. 31.

Amtrak will finish installing the system on the track it owns in the Northeast by Dec. 31. This includes the spine of the Northeast Corridor between Boston and New Haven, Conn.; New York and Washington, D.C.; and the Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa.

A 97-mile segment of Amtrak’s Chicago-Detroit line in Michigan and Indiana has been equipped with the system since 2002.

However, Amtrak wrote that positive train control will not be ready on two segments of the Northeast Corridor controlled by commuter railroads: 56 miles between New Haven, Conn., and New Rochelle, N.Y., on Metro North and a mile-long segment in Queens, N.Y., on the Long Island Rail Road.

Amtrak said the system would be complete on its line from New Haven, Conn., to Springfield, Mass., in 2016.

The system will not be ready on other lines where Amtrak is installing it. Those include 135 miles between Kalamazoo and Dearborn, Mich., owned by the state of Michigan; 94 miles between Poughkeepsie and Schenectady, N.Y., leased from freight carrier CSX; and track leading to the Amtrak stations in Chicago and New Orleans.

This post has been updated with Amtrak’s 2014 ridership numbers.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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