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Senators Give Railroads an Ultimatum on Crash Prevention Control

  • Thune warns of ‘enforcement action’ to ensure compliance
  • Renewed scrutiny of safety after recent deadly Amtrak crashes

U.S. regulators should crack down on railroads which fail to meet a looming deadline to activate systems that safety officials have said could have prevented two recent deadly Amtrak accidents, said top senators on an oversight panel.

By year end, railroads carrying people and hazardous materials are required to implement Positive Train Control, crash prevention technology designed to avoid accidents such as derailments due to excessive speed and train-to-train collisions by automatically applying brakes.

As many as two-thirds of 29 U.S. commuter railroads are at risk of missing that deadline or failing to qualify for an extension, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday. Railroads that fail to meet the deadline can be penalized by the Federal Railroad Administration.

“If railroads do not comply with the law by the year’s end,” regulators should “take the enforcement action needed to bring railroads into compliance,” Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, warned at a hearing on Thursday.

Preventable Tragedies

Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, the panel’s top-ranking Democrat, said at the hearing that “these tragedies can be prevented, they should be prevented and that’s why the industry must do a better job of implementing PTC and get it done quickly, and that’s why the U.S. government ought to crack down.”

Congress in 2008 mandated that railroads install PTC by 2015 on critical sections of track. Late in 2015, when it became clear that railroads weren’t going to meet the deadline, lawmakers extended it until the end of 2018.

Railroads were also given as much as two additional years to complete full activation across their lines if they met several milestones, including full PTC activation on at least half of their tracks and full installation of the hardware across all of their systems.

“Railroads should not count on any extensions to the statutory framework that Congress passed in 2015," Thune said.

Amtrak Crashes

Rail safety has come under renewed scrutiny since recent fatal Amtrak accidents in Washington State and South Carolina that investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said could have been prevented by PTC.

Safety officials likewise told a House panel in February that several railroads would likely miss a December 2018 deadline to fully implement the technology on their tracks, meaning they would need the extension.

An Amtrak passenger train en route to Miami from from New York in February rammed into a parked CSX Corp. freight train outside Columbia, South Carolina, killing two Amtrak employees and injuring around 100 people. In December, an Amtrak train derailed near DuPont, Washington, after barreling through a curved section of track at more than twice the speed limit, killing three.

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