Amtrak at Risk of Disruption in Railroad Showdown With Congress

Passengers board an Amtrak Northeast Regional train at Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Passengers board an Amtrak Northeast Regional train at Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
  • Railroads seek safety-system deadline extention to 2018
  • Passenger trains from Boston to DC won't be affected

Amtrak passenger service that runs on tracks owned by freight rail companies may be curtailed unless Congress extends a Dec. 31 deadline to implement a safety system that was mandated seven years ago.

December 2018 would be “more realistic” for implementing the technology, which automatically stops trains to prevent a collision or unsafe speeds, the Association of American Railroads said Tuesday in a statement. The system, known as positive train control, is to be installed on all lines that carry chemicals and passengers, a goal that the five major freight rail companies say can’t be done by the end of this year.

The current target “is arbitrary, unworkable and unrealistic,” said the group, which raised the possibility that the industry may curtail service on lines in January to prevent being in violation of the law.

Only about a third of Amtrak’s 31.6 million passengers in fiscal 2013 traveled on its own tracks, so the majority may be affected if the freight railroads curtail or stop services. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington will be ready by the deadline, said spokesman Marc Magliari. Positive train control is already on its line from Porter, Indiana, to Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Congress imposed the system on the railroads after a Los Angeles passenger train in which the Metrolink engineer was sending text messages collided with a freight train, killing 25 people in 2008. The railroads face fines and penalties if the system isn’t operating by the end of the year.

The Senate voted in July for an extension that requires having positive train control operational by no later than the end of 2018 in a transportation bill that needs approval from the House.

BNSF Railway Co., the railroad owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., said in July it’s analyzing suspending operations on rail lines that require the safety system. The obligation for railroads to provide service to customers “is not absolute” and can be halted for safety reasons, Daniel Elliott, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board said in a Sept. 3 letter.

For BNSF to comply with the law “means about 11,300 miles of track that needs to be equipped,” said Michael Trevino, a spokesman, in an e-mail Tuesday.

The freight railroads, which have spent more than $5.7 billion on the system, will be put in an impossible situation if the deadline isn’t extended, the railroad association said. “If they stop or reduce services to avoid being in violation of the PTC law, they may face claims or litigation related to those competing obligations to provide service,” the group said.

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