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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

Railroads warn of service disruption as PTC deadline looms

Metra and other railroads are warning that rail service could be disrupted after Jan. 1, 2016, if Congress doesn't address a looming federal deadline for positive train control (PTC) implementation that most railroads say they won't be able to meet.

In a notice addressed to Chicago-area commuters late last week, Metra Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Don Orseno said that there is a "strong possibility that we would not be able to operate in 2016" unless Congress approves an extension of the Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to implement PTC safety technology.

"It is with great concern and trepidation that we must begin to prepare contingency plans in the event the Dec. 31 2015, PTC implementation deadline passes," Orseno wrote in the letter, which was posted on Metra's website.

Orseno will brief Metra’s board of the situation at its Sept. 21 meeting, and will inform riders before Oct. 31 of the railroad's options, he wrote.

Metra also outlined its concerns in a letter to U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Thune recently asked railroads to inform him of the consequences the deadline will have on their operations.

"We remain committed to the implementation of PTC in a safe and prudent manner," Orseno said in the letter to Thune. "However, many significant challenges prohibit our ability to meet the federally mandated deadline."

In his letter to Thune, BNSF Railway Co. President and CEO Carl Ice indicated that PTC will be implemented on a significant portion of the Class I's network by year’s end, but after that the railroad will still require ongoing installation and extensive testing of the safety technology.

Because the Federal Railroad Administration’s announcement that it would enforce the deadline and begin imposing fines on railroads that don’t meet it, the Class I cannot operate in violation of federal law, Ice said. As a result, it would have to try to reroute traffic to lines not required to have PTC installed, which would cause "enormous congestion," he wrote.

"BNSF would do whatever is reasonably possible to mitigate this impact, but the consequences for the economy and for our company would be substantial," Ice wrote.

BNSF also might not be able to provide all existing services to various commuter-rail agencies, such as those in Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis, as well as for certain Amtrak lines, he said. The Class I would be faced with the difficult choice of operating in violation of the PTC statute or risking breach-of-contract claims for not operating the service, Ice wrote.

Also last week, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) warned in a memo to Congress that it needs to clarify the PTC timeframe. The mandated deadline is "arbitrary, unworkable and unrealistic," and December 2018 would be a more realistic timeframe for full PTC implementation, plus an additional two years for nationwide testing, AAR officials said in the memo.

In response to the railroads' letters and public statements, the National Association of Railroad Passengers called on Congress to extend the PTC deadline.

"Faced with ending service or breaking Federal Railroad Administration regulations, operators are stuck between a rock and a hard place," wrote NARP President and CEO Jim Mathews.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 9/14/2015