Will January 1, 2016 be the day the trains stop?
As America’s railroads and Congress fail to agree on extending the December 31 deadline for implementing Positive Train Control systems, that threat inches closer to reality.
The railroads have threatened to essentially shut down all service rather than face fines for non-compliance. Congress, with recent fatal derailments fresh in their minds, may fear the public’s reaction if they grant an extension.
And the public? They’re largely unaware of the issue—or the potential fallout of railroads triggering “the nuclear option” on January 1.
How did we get here? And what’s next?
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008
On September 12, 2008, a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train overran a signal and collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train. The Metrolink engineer was allegedly distracted by his cell phone. He and 24 passengers died.
Public outrage over the tragedy prompted Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA 2008) the following month, mandating that railroads transporting both passengers and any toxic by inhalation (TIH) chemicals install Positive Train Control (PTC) systems on their tracks.
PTC automatically tracks a train’s location, routing and speed using GPS and digital radio communications. It will slow or stop the train if wayside signal indications, routing directions or speed limits are violated.
In theory, PTC would prevent accidents and save lives. In practice, it’s considerably more complicated.
The complexity and scope of Positive Train Control
Implementing PTC over North America’s integrated, harmonized rail network has proven to be phenomenally complex.
The seven Class One railroads all interoperate one another’s locomotives and freight cars. They also interoperate with passenger train systems, including Amtrak and multiple city commuter systems. So any PTC system must essentially work across the entire North American rail network.
The project is also astronomically expensive—on the order of $10 billion—with no funding from the federal government. Consider that the railroads must:
- Equip, calibrate, test and certify more than 22,000 locomotives.
- Install the PTC system on approximately 140,000 miles of track.
- Install more than 10,000 wayside communication towers, line poles and base stations—and test them under actual operating conditions, which include numerous and highly disparate signaling systems.
- Allocate a broad swath of the radio frequency spectrum and ensure that its ability to withstand tampering or jamming be almost absolute.
- Acquire and/or modify thousands of sites for wayside infrastructure.
- Train thousands of railroad operating personnel to use the system.
Politicians who claim that the railroads “already have this” simply do not grasp the scope of the PTC system.
The automated train control systems in use since the 1930s—mostly on single-owner passenger trains, on limited sections of track—aren’t interoperable across the national network. And they simply limit speeds. They don’t track and control movements with anything like the complexity mandated by RSIA 2008.
Why seven years was not enough
Railroads have worked diligently to meet the December 31 deadline, but they’ve been working against a number of factors:
- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been extraordinarily slow in issuing radio frequency allocations and permits for the operating spectrum that the PTC system will require.
- The FCC and the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have required environmental and archeological surveys of thousands of wayside infrastructure sites before issuing construction permits.
- Building the control systems needed to create the PTC network nearly from scratch has triggered a shortage of trained signal and electronic engineers.
- Even the best-financed railroads could not afford to outlay the necessary funding all at once.
Despite these challenges, the railroads have made creditable progress. About two-thirds of the system is in place, albeit mainly in prototype status.
The consequences of missing the deadline
However, operating trains across “almost complete” networks will fail to meet the legal requirements of RSIA 2008—and will place the railroads at risk of not just fines, but financial and even criminal liability:
- The Federal Railroad Administration intends to enforce compliance effective January 1, 2016, with potential fines of $25,000 per non-compliant locomotive per incident.
- In the event of an accident involving TIH commodities and/or passengers, railroads risk being found at fault for not having mandated PTC control systems in place.
- Such an accident could also expose the railroad to criminal prosecution, as has happened with both train crew and control personnel involved in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster.
The difficulties in meeting the deadline—and the potential consequences of not meeting it—have prompted the railroads to seek an extension. Senator John Thune (R-SD), ranking member on the Senate Transportation Committee, has actively supported these efforts, but recent fatal accidents involving passenger trains—both allegedly caused by excessive speeds—have not helped the railroads’ case.
Earlier this month, publicly released letters from both BNSF and the Union Pacific to Senator Thune—with verbal support from some of the other Class Ones—explicitly stated that if no extension is granted, both railroads will place an embargo on the carriage of both TIHs and passenger traffic.
To avoid any chance of accidently violating the law, the railroads may initiate a complete freight embargo—a.k.a., “the nuclear option.”
The nuclear option
Americans have little concept of the critical role railroads play in transporting hazardous chemicals. Chlorine for municipal water purification, ammonia for fertilizer and a plethora of other crucial TIH commodities travel almost exclusively by rail. And that’s in addition to nearly 2,000 carloads of crude oil every day.
What would happen if the railroads enacted a complete embargo?
- There aren’t nearly enough trucks to replace rail’s capacity, and even if there were, introducing tens of thousands of additional hazmat-laden trucks to America’s highways would create an unacceptable safety risk.
- Truck service would become astronomically more expensive—even if it were available and safe—not just for chemical shippers, but for every commodity currently transported by highway.
- An embargo on passenger services could deal a deathblow to Amtrak, since the loss of cash flow would quickly overwhelm the already underfunded carrier’s viability.
- An embargo on commuter service would be immediately disastrous—both BNSF and Union Pacific supply track and crews for much of Metra’s commuter passenger service in Chicago, and host similar operations in most other major urban areas west of there.
Imagine the impact of millions of additional commuters driving to work on urban America’s already congested highways. It’s safe to say that RSIA 2008 would no longer be an issue about which the general public was unaware.
An uncertain winter
The railroads are no stranger to astute political maneuvers, but this threat is not idle posturing. The deadline is simply not achievable.
If cooler heads prevail, Congress will grant a rational extension. The 2015 Transportation Bill contains such language, but it’s currently bogged down in bitter partisan fighting over other issues. Any action may wait until the veritable last minute.
But if the PTC deadline extension falls victim to political issues, both shippers and the public may face an uncertain winter of discontent.
Labelmaster is a full-service provider of goods and services for hazardous materials and Dangerous Goods shippers, transport operators, and EH&S providers. See our full line of solutions at labelmaster.com.
Nikki Burgess is Labelmaster’s primary “resident expert” on rail-oriented issues, drawing on more than 25 years of experience. Her twin certifications—as a Dangerous Goods Safety Advisor (DGSA) and a Certified Dangerous Goods Professional (CDGP)—are held by fewer than 100 individuals worldwide.