Railroads get PTC reprieve as President signs Congressional transportation funding stopgap measure

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

The rail industry’s frenzied push to extend the Congressionally imposed deadline for implementing Positive Train Control—one of the largest unfunded mandates ever foisted upon a U.S. industry—finally came to fruition on Oct. 29, 2015.

President Obama on Oct. 29 signed into law H.R. 3819, the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2015, which only the day before had been approved by the U.S. Senate. H.R. 3819,  which originated with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and was approved by the full Houseon Oct. 27, extends federal transportation funding through Nov. 20 to prevent a Highway Trust Fund shutdown. Most important to railroads, H.R. 3819 includes language for a PTC deadline extension identical to that in H.R. 3763, the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform (STRR) Act of 2015, passed Oct. 22 by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

That the blanket three-year-minimum PTC implementation deadline extension came about as the direct result of its attachment to another bill is no surprise to Capitol Hill insiders. House T&I Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) felt that the PTC extension language contained in H.R. 3763 would be acceptable to Sen. John Thune (R-S.Dak.), Senate Commerce Committee Chair. Shuster was right, and as a result there was a fallback position to move the PTC language via another legislative vehicle. That vehicle was H.R. 3819, the short-term surface transportation bill extension, which needed to be passed prior to Oct. 29 to keep the Highway Trust Fund from going belly up.

In addition yo extending the deadline to Dec. 31, 2019, H.R. 3819 gives railroads the option to seek a waiver granting an additional two years to install PTC. The legislation now goes to President Obama, who has voiced his displeasure with delaying implementation of PTC, but is still expected to sign the bill.

The AAR puts the amount freight railroads have spent on PTC development, testing and installation at close to $6 billion, with an additional $4 billion to be spent before the technology is fully operational. The rail industry has been stressing that, without a deadline extension, there would have been an embargo imposed on certain TIH (toxic inhalation hazard) freight traffic, as well as passenger train operations, a move that would have idled the movement of millions of dollars in commodities vital to the economy and stranded millions of rail passengers. The American Chemistry Council estimated that a one-month shutdown of rail service would cost the U.S. economy more than $30 billion and would lead to approximately 700,000 lost jobs.

“Members of the House and Senate are to be commended for taking the responsible action to extend the PTC deadline.The extension means freight and passenger railroads can continue moving forward with the ongoing development, installation, real-world testing and validation of this complex technology,’ said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. “The rail industry remains fully committed to being accountable and transparent in completing PTC.”

Mandatory installation of PTC dates back to the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which stipulated that freight rail lines over which trains hauling TIH (toxic inhalation hazard) commodities and passenger trains operate implement PTC by Dec. 31, 2015. Over the course of at least two years, it became apparent that the deadline could not be met, for various technical and financial reasons. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the issue confirmed that railroads have faced numerous problems in implementing the complex technology.

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