PTC Finger-Pointing Continues as DeFazio Introduces Legislation

January 12, 2018

The aftermath of December’s fatal Amtrak Cascades train derailment in Washington State continues to keep the topic of positive train control (PTC) in the headlines.

House Democrats last week sent a letter to the Department of Transportation similar to the December 21 letter from Senate Democrats asking Secretary Chao to brief Congress on PTC implementation status and to hold the line on enforcing the December 31, 2018 deadline instead of routinely granting extensions of up to two years as currently allowed by law:

While the Rail Safety Improvement Act allowed DOT to extend the PTC deadline for up to 24 months if the railroads meet certain criteria that Congress insisted upon, the extension was intended to be used in limited circumstances. However, a new graphic on the FRA website seems to suggest that the Department of Transportation is tracking railroad efforts to meet the 2020 extension rather than holding them accountable for meeting the 2018 deadline.

For her part, Chao sent identical letters to the heads of all major U.S. railroads on December 27 (which were not made public until January 2) telling them that:

…we are concerned that many of the Nation’s railroads must greatly accelerate their efforts to achieve the Congressionally mandated requirements. In that regard, the FRA leadership has been directed to work with your organization’s leadership to help create an increased level of urgency to underscore the imperative of meeting existing timeline expectations for rolling out this critical rail-safety technology.

On January 4, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its preliminary report on the Cascades derailment. That report found that:

In this accident, PTC would have notified the engineer of train 501 about the speed reduction for the curve; if the engineer did not take appropriate action to control the train’s speed, PTC would have applied the train brakes to maintain compliance with the speed restriction and to stop the train.

Yesterday, a group of House Democrats led by Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Railroads Subcommittee ranking member Mike Capuano (D-MA) introduced a bill (H.R. 4766) to hold the line on PTC deadline extensions and authorize federal grants to commuter railroads for PTC implementation.

Section-by-section summary of H.R. 4766.

Sec. 1. Names the bill the “Positive Train Control Implementation and Financing Act of 2018.”

Sec. 2. Amends 49 U.S.C. §20157 to strike subsection (a)(3), which gives the Secretary of Transportation authority to extend the December 31, 2018 PTC deadline for up to two years on a case-by-case basis and making other conforming changes.

Sec. 3. Authorizes a discretionary appropriation from the general fund of up to $2.572 billion for grants to “entities providing regularly scheduled intercity or commuter rail passenger transportation” to implement PTC.

Sec. 4. Prohibits railroads from beginning passenger service on any new routes until PTC is “fully implemented and operational” on that route.

Sec. 5.  Requires Amtrak to make quarterly reports of its PTC implementation status on a route-by-route basis.

When Congress enacted the PTC mandate in 2008, they obviously knew next to nothing about how much it would cost the railroads. Section 105 of the 2008 rail safety law authorized a grant program for freight and passenger railroads to help with PTC implementation, capped at $50 million per year for five years. $250 million. The full cost to railroads of PTC implementation is expected to top $13.5 billion. Of that amount, an estimated $3.5 billion is costs to commuter railroads, which are owned by state or local governments. The new bill would authorize $2.6 billion in PTC grants to commuter railroads, but for the grants to be realized, the Appropriations Committees would have to find that money somewhere, probably by shrinking other discretionary programs in the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee (like the FAA, or mass transit new starts).

(Ed. Note: There is also a moral hazard issue here. The New York City and Boston-area commuter railroads (Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) have already borrowed some $1.35 billion from the federal government to pay their PTC implementation costs. ($967 million between the two NYC railroads and $382 million for MBTA.) If the federal government then comes around and pays 80 percent of the PTC costs for Jersey Transit, Chicago Metra, SoCal Metrolink, SEPTA, Caltrain, and the rest, while NYC and Boston will still be paying off their PTC debt 30+ years from now, why would any local government in its right mind ever exercise responsibility to meet any federal spending mandate if there were any chance whatsoever of Congress bailing them out if they just ignore the deadline?)

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