Commentary: U.S. Congress has work to do to avoid rail stoppage


Issue Date: October 28, 2015
By Michael Gaynor
California agriculture and the economy as a whole will be damaged if legislators in Washington do not act to extend the positive train control deadline.
Michael Gaynor

The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee voted to extend the deadline for positive train control (PTC) Oct. 22, taking an important step toward forestalling a rail stoppage that would hurt California's farmers and affect millions. Now, the rest of Congress needs to finish the job and pass an extension.

The alternative is a massive rail stoppage that thousands of voices from across the country—like the California Farm Bureau Federation and American Farm Bureau Federation—have said would hurt everyone who relies on rail to haul goods and receive inputs.

A rail shutdown would sharply impact California's agricultural industry, which relies heavily on rail to move goods across the country. Nationally, many farmers will not have access to fertilizers and other supplies hauled by rail if there is a shutdown, and have suggested that they could miss planting cycles, affecting the food supply.

The issue at stake is PTC, an advanced rail safety system designed to stop a train before certain accidents occur, using satellites, databases and sophisticated signaling networks. When Congress mandated the current deadline in 2008, the system's major components had not been invented; railroads and transportation experts alike warned that the given timeframe did not account for the complexity and scope of the job.

For PTC to work safely, for instance, it will need to be interoperable between railroads on more than 60,000 miles of track, so that any train operating on another railroad's lines can "talk" to the host railroad's PTC system. This will require deploying approximately 500,000 pieces of technology, from wayside interface units to locomotive systems.

The mandate also applies to short line or regional railroads that operate on certain Class I or passenger lines. For many of these smaller carriers, the high costs of the required upgrades have been difficult to manage.

This is what happens when an enormous technological challenge meets an arbitrary deadline. To date, all of the major Class I railroads and the vast number of passenger lines have told Congress that they will not meet the deadline. Rather than operate in violation of the law, they will be forced to limit or stop service.

An additional wrinkle is rail's role as a "common carrier." Freight railroads have a legal obligation to provide service to all customers, including those shipping crude oil and hazardous materials. This means that if carriers halt service at the end of the year to comply with the PTC law, they could risk claims or lawsuits from customers.

Railroads have made huge progress on PTC implementation despite technological challenges and other obstacles beyond their control. The Federal Communications Commission, for example, halted installation of 22,000 PTC antennas for more than a year to complete a historic-preservation review process.

Having collectively spent $6 billion out of an expected $10 billion on PTC, railroads have demonstrated their commitment to this safety technology. Sixty-nine percent of the required 33,000 wayside interface units are installed and 7,000 locomotives are fully equipped.

U.S. freight railroads anticipated that they would spend and invest a record $29 billion in 2015 to build, maintain and grow the 140,000-mile rail network. These private dollars are crucial to communities across the country, where they spur economic development and job creation.

Private investments also pay safety dividends: The train accident rate has fallen 80 percent since 1980. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 2014 was the safest year on record for freight train operations in the U.S.

In Congress, the next step for passing a PTC extension will be a vote before the entire House. The recently passed House PTC provision is similar, but not identical, to one agreed to by the Senate earlier this year. If both the House and Senate do not agree on a unified extension that the president signs into law, freight and passenger rail services will face severe disruptions and may grind to a halt.

The effects on the national economy would be devastating: A rail shutdown would pull $30 billion out of the U.S. economy in the first quarter of 2016 alone, according to a some estimates, costing 700,000 jobs.

The consequences of a rail shutdown have already begun to be felt: Railroads and rail customers are being forced to make service decisions now, because the vast nationwide rail network cannot simply be stopped and restarted overnight.

California's agricultural industry and the economy as a whole will be damaged if legislators in Washington do not act to extend the PTC deadline. Congress made a positive stride last week by passing an extension in committee, but there is more work to be done to keep the trains running.

Get involved by visiting the GoRail Action Center at http://bit.ly/1YDyWVq to ask members of Congress to pass a PTC extension.

(Michael Gaynor is assistant vice president of field operations at GoRail, which unites rail stakeholders with the public in support of solutions to transportation challenges. He may be contacted at mgaynor@gorail.org.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.