House panel adds 3-year delay on rail safety system to 3-week highway bill

An Altamont Commuter Express train readies for departure from Diridon Station in San Jose, Calif., on Aug. 10, 2012.
An Altamont Commuter Express train readies for departure from Diridon Station in San Jose, Calif., on Aug. 10, 2012. McClatchy

Lawmakers have introduced legislation that if passed this week could avoid a potential rail service disruption resulting from a year-end safety deadline few railroads are expected to meet.

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Monday rolled out a bill that would keep federal highway funds moving to the states through Nov. 21. The legislation would also extend a Dec. 31 deadline for positive train control until the end of 2018.

Congress required the collision-avoidance system in a 2008 law, but most railroads are nowhere finished installing it. The Government Accountability Office has been warning lawmakers for at least two years that the companies would not be ready by the deadline.

The nation’s freight and commuter railroads, and Amtrak, have been advising customers and passengers that they would begin suspending their operations before the end of the year if Congress didn’t adjust the deadline.

One railroad, Norfolk Southern, said last week that it would stop shipping poisonous-by-inhalation chemicals on Dec. 1, affecting the supply of chlorine for water purification and anhydrous ammonia for fertilizer. It also said that it would not support the operation of Amtrak or commuter trains on its tracks after Dec. 31.

Last week, the House committee inserted the extension language into its six-year transportation bill. The current highway authorization expires on Thursday, which doesn’t leave enough time for the House to work through its differences with the Senate.

So on Monday, the panel’s Republican chairman and ranking Democrat, Reps. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania and Peter DeFazio of Oregon, introduced the stopgap highway measure with the positive train control deadline extension.

Notably, the legislation was also sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the likely next Speaker of the House.

“We need to extend the Positive Train Control deadline as soon as possible to prevent significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country,” Shuster said in a statement. “The sooner we extend this deadline, the more certainty we will give our agricultural, manufacturing and chemical industries to ensure there will be no supply-chain disruptions.”

The stopgap bill could run into trouble in the Senate, however. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has stated her preference for dealing with the positive train control deadline in a long-term highway bill instead of a short-term patch.

That committee has jurisdiction over the highway legislation, and a floor speech Monday, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the panel’s chairman, said he was confident both chambers could get a long-term bill to the president’s desk “within the next few weeks.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis