Rail-Safety Effort Stalled by Indian Reviews to Go Faster

Regulators proposed a streamlined process for American Indian tribes to complete reviews that railroads have said make it difficult to meet deadlines for finishing the biggest rail-safety project in U.S. history.

Tribes would get less time to review, for historic significance, proposed locations for 22,000 U.S. communications antennae and would need to accept bulk applications for all equipment proposed in a county, the Federal Communications Commission said in a notice posted on its website yesterday.

Railroads were ordered by Congress in 2008 to install the safety technology, known as positive train control, which uses networks of sensors to automatically slow or stop trains if a crash seems probable. Lawmakers acted that year after a collision between freight and commuter trains in Los Angeles left 25 dead and more than 100 injured.

The rail industry has asked Congress to extend the December 2015 deadline to install the crash-avoidance technology on 23,000 locomotives and 60,000 miles of tracks, at a cost of $13.2 billion.

Work on installing the antennae required for the system to work halted last May when the railroads and their regulators learned that 565 American Indian tribes have the right under U.S. law to review, one by one, whether the equipment might be built on sacred ground.

Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads whose members include the largest U.S. railroads, had no immediate comment.

Metro North

Thirty-seven railroads including Burlington Northern Santa Fe, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., must install the systems on routes that carry passengers and the most-hazardous materials, such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia. Railroads could be fined tens of thousands of dollars for missing the deadline.

Historic preservation officials will be asked to approve the revised system, the FCC said.

Positive train control technology communicates a train’s location, speed and other information operators might need, such as speed restrictions and approaching signals. It can slow or automatically stop a train if its operators don’t.

The deadliest crash in the Metro-North Railroad’s history might have been prevented had the technology been installed where the Dec. 1 accident took place, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener has said. Four passengers died after a Metro-North train going more than twice the speed limit derailed on a curve in New York City.

Ground Disturbance

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, in November signed a $429 million contract to start work to develop the technology for the two commuter railroads.

Under the FCC’s proposal, towers associated with the system can’t exceed 75 feet, create a foundation hole in excess of 15 inches in diameter, or be deeper than 15 feet.

Ground disturbance can be important when considering whether a project risks altering sacred sites, former settlements or burial grounds, Ian Thompson, director of the Historic Preservation Department with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said in an interview.

Tribes’ rights, and the need for the FCC to consult with them, were established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, said Bruce Milhans, spokesman for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency that encourages historic preservation.