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Congress extends deadline for railroads to install anti-derailment technology

The deadline was December 31st, but only 31 percent of locomotives have positive train control

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Thanks to intense lobbying by the railroad industry, Congress approved a bill that would extend the deadline by at least three years for implementation of Positive Train Control, an automated braking technology that experts believe provides a needed check on human error and prevents deadly derailments.

Seven years ago, after a train collision killed 25 people in Los Angeles, Congress ordered railroads nationwide to install positive train control by the end of 2015. Since then, a number of derailments occurred that could have been avoided if the trains involved had the technology available. Experts estimate that the system could have prevented 145 rail accidents that killed 288 people and injured 6,575 since 1969. "But we can't let this drag on indefinitely."
But the railroad industry has been dragging its feet ever since Congress approved the mandate, and for all the obvious reasons. Industry groups estimate the cost of installing positive train control to be between $10 billion and $14 billion. Federal economists put the cost-benefit ratio at 20 to 1.

But as the deadline approached, it became clear that most of the nation's train companies were going to blow it. A report released in August by the Federal Railroad Administration concluded that "most railroads will miss the December 31st, 2015 positive train control implementation deadline that Congress established in 2008."

Meanwhile, rail industry lobbyists, who have been spreading money around to the right politicians for over a decade, anticipated this exact move. Since 2001, the industry contributed nearly half a million dollars to Bill Shuster, the Republican chair of the House Transportation Committee, who shepherded the bill through Congress this week, according to the Washington Post.

After Tuesday's vote to extend the deadline, Edward Hamberger, the president and CEO of the American Railroad Association, which lobbies on behalf of the industry in Washington, DC, applauded Congress for agreeing to their request for a delay. "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," Hamberger said in a statement. According to the train lobby, "substantial progress" on installing positive train control has been made. As of 2015, 31 percent of locomotives have the technology installed and over $5 billion have been spent.

But California Senator Dianne Feinstein said the foot-dragging needed to stop with so many lives on the line. "Current law states railroads must fully install PTC by the end of this year," Feinstein said Wednesday. "For a variety of reasons, we all know this is not feasible for all railroads. But we can't let this drag on indefinitely. It's a matter of public safety. We must get this done."

Recent Amtrak and Metro North derailments could have been prevented with PTC

Last May, an Amtrak train traveling the Northeast Corridor between Washington, DC and New York City derailed after allegedly hitting curve designed for 50 mph speeds, traveling at over 100 mph. Eight people died and over 200 were injured, 11 critically. Two years prior, a Metro North train barreling into a sharp curve at nearly three times the required speed crashed, killing four and injuring 60. Investigators and experts believe both accidents could have been prevented by the installation of positive train control.