The Life-Saving Train Technology That Congress Isn’t Fully Funding

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Emergency personnel work at the scene of a deadly train derailment, Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Philadelphia. Patrick Semansky/AP File Photo

The omnibus budget bill allocated money for a railroad-safety measure that prevents accidents. But not enough.

e de­rail­ment of Amtrak train 188 in Phil­adelphia earli­er this year, which killed eight people, in­tro­duced many Amer­ic­ans to a safety tech­no­logy that could have pre­ven­ted the crash in the first place: pos­it­ive train con­trol. Now, Con­gress has al­loc­ated $25 mil­lion in fund­ing in the om­ni­bus bill to help rail­roads im­ple­ment the tech­no­logy—but some of Wash­ing­ton’s most ar­dent sup­port­ers of PTC are still let down.

“A $25 mil­lion in­vest­ment in PTC is clearly not enough, but it is in­fin­itely more than we have in­ves­ted in re­cent years,” Rep. Sean Patrick Malo­ney of New York said in a state­ment. The om­ni­bus fund­ing rep­res­ents a “small step [that] con­tin­ues to move us in the right dir­ec­tion to­ward uni­ver­sal im­ple­ment­a­tion of this life-sav­ing tech­no­logy—but we must do more.”

The in­suf­fi­cient in­stall­a­tion of PTC across the coun­try has gen­er­ated an emo­tion­al de­bate on the Hill in re­cent months. The tech­no­logy pre­vents train-on-train col­li­sions and speed-in­duced de­rail­ments by con­trolling the train or stop­ping it al­to­geth­er. As a res­ult, PTC is widely con­sidered a life-sav­ing tech­no­logy. At a House Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee hear­ing earli­er this year, Fed­er­al Rail­road Ad­min­is­trat­or Sarah Fein­berg re­peatedly em­phas­ized the rail­roads’ grave need for PTC, which she called a “long-over­due tech­no­logy,” but said rail­roads are hampered by mea­ger fund­ing from Con­gress. The new om­ni­bus sup­port is cer­tainly wel­come; it just isn’t enough.

“The fund­ing in the re­cently passed trans­port­a­tion bill and in the bill that funds the gov­ern­ment for the next year are good starts,” Fein­berg said in a state­ment, “but more is needed for com­muter rail­roads.”

That’s be­cause PTC is man­dat­ory for com­muter rails and those that trans­port haz­ard­ous ma­ter­i­als, both of which make up a big chunk of the coun­try’s total rail net­work. But meet­ing that man­dat­ory rule is in doubt. In the com­pre­hens­ive trans­port­a­tion bill Con­gress passed this month, $199 mil­lion was al­loc­ated for PTC on com­muter rails, the first time that Con­gress had ded­ic­ated fund­ing spe­cific­ally for the tech­no­logy. But that money, com­bined with the om­ni­bus al­loc­a­tion, still falls a stag­ger­ing $600 mil­lion short of the fig­ure the Fed­er­al Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­ques­ted in the last two years: $825 mil­lion “to as­sist com­muter rail­roads with the im­ple­ment­a­tion of PTC and ad­di­tion­al fund­ing to aid with the im­ple­ment­a­tion of PTC on Amtrak’s na­tion­al net­work,” ac­cord­ing to testi­mony that Fein­berg gave in June. Mean­while, the om­ni­bus al­loc­a­tion doesn’t even spe­cify that fund­ing must be used solely for PTC; it could be used to im­ple­ment oth­er safety meas­ures, too.

The rail­roads’ dead­line for in­stalling PTC has also been con­tro­ver­sial. Un­til re­cently, the rail­roads had a Dec. 31, 2015, dead­line to im­ple­ment the tech­no­logy, per the Rail Safety Im­prove­ment Act of 2008. But a ma­jor­ity of rail lines wer­en’t on track to meet it. In Oc­to­ber, Con­gress gran­ted the rail­roads a three-year ex­ten­sion, with “wiggle room” for an ad­di­tion­al two more years after an in­tense lob­by­ing push by the in­dustry and threats of a com­muter-rail and freight shut­down. North­east Demo­crats strongly dis­ap­proved of the ex­ten­sion: They want more fund­ing for PTC, but they also don’t want the rail­roads to get away with not in­stalling it for many more years. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in The New York Times, pro­ponents of the ex­ten­sion say the ex­tra time will help be­cause “the equip­ment is costly and time-con­sum­ing to in­stall across thou­sands of miles of track.”

But Fein­berg warned rail­road of­fi­cials at a con­fer­ence last month that they must not as­sume Con­gress will push back the dead­line again, and she em­phas­ized PTC’s life-sav­ing im­plic­a­tions—just as she had back in June, when she pre­dicted more ac­ci­dents to come: “If PTC is not fully im­ple­men­ted by Janu­ary 1, 2016, we can and should ex­pect there to be ac­ci­dents in the months and years to fol­low that PTC could have pre­ven­ted.”

After the Phil­adelphia crash, law­makers held a hear­ing to find out what went wrong and how PTC could have helped. (Though PTC wasn’t fully im­ple­men­ted on the Phil­adelphia track at the time, Amtrak is now on tar­get to fin­ish it on the en­tire North­east Cor­ridor, the coun­try’s busiest rail line, by the end of the year. Amtrak isn’t eli­gible for the om­ni­bus fund­ing.) At the hear­ing, Malo­ney cited an ac­ci­dent on the Metro-North com­muter rail line, where a 2013 de­rail­ment killed four people. He blamed Con­gress it­self for not giv­ing rail­roads the tools they need to make safety im­prove­ments: “Of all of the people who ought to be apo­lo­giz­ing for these ac­ci­dents that keep hap­pen­ing be­cause we don’t have the safety sys­tems in place, the United States Con­gress maybe ought to be at the top of the list, wouldn’t that be fair to say?” he asked Fein­berg. “I think that would be fair to say,” Fein­berg answered.

Demo­crat­ic law­makers from the North­east, like Malo­ney, have been the most vo­cal about PTC. A couple weeks be­fore the House hear­ing, 23 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors sent a let­ter ur­ging the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee to al­loc­ate more fund­ing for it, though they didn’t call for a spe­cif­ic dol­lar fig­ure. Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­or Bob Ca­sey of Pennsylvania, the chief au­thor of that let­ter, said the om­ni­bus fund­ing could “sub­stan­tially in­crease” rail safety. “Since the dev­ast­at­ing Amtrak 188 crash, we have learned that PTC truly [af­fects] the safety and lives of those trav­el­ing on our coun­try’s rail­ways,” Ca­sey said in a state­ment.

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Richard Blu­menth­al of Con­necti­c­ut, who has had strong words for the rail­roads for not yet im­ple­ment­ing PTC, said he’s pleased that the om­ni­bus “in­cludes a small down pay­ment” for the tech­no­logy. But “$25 mil­lion is just a drop in the buck­et giv­en the large scale and scope of rail-safety meas­ures needed im­me­di­ately,” he said in a state­ment. “Con­gress must ap­pro­pri­ate far more to re­build a crum­bling rail net­work that today is ill-pre­pared and ill-suited for our 21st-cen­tury needs.”

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