UPDATE: Fed auditors critical of FRA PTC efforts

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PTC
A Union Pacific train passes underneath a signal equipped by BNSF Railway for positive train control operations in California's Cajon Pass, Sept. 2013.
Trains: Steve Sweeney
WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration needs to improve its oversight of railroads’ implementation of positive train control, according to a report released today by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The report by the GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, says the FRA efforts to oversee PTC implementation "were not sufficient to monitor and report on the progress of individual railroads."

FRA established a PTC task force in May 2015 that plans to collect data on the progress each railroad has made. Despite the looming deadline, "FRA is still in the process of determining the strategies and plans it will use to oversee PTC implementation," according to the GAO report.

Specifically, the GAO recommends that the railroad agency:
  • Create a system to track railroads’ rollout of PTC;
  • Develop an enforcement strategy;
  • Identify ways to support PTC implementation; and
  • Plan for mitigating risks and challenges to implementation.
The GAO report repeats the agency’s 2013 recommendation that Congress grant the FRA the ability to permit PTC deadline extensions on a case-by-case basis. Railroads have long advocated for a blanket extension of several years.

Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting administrator, almost certainly will face questions on PTC implementation during her Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.

The FRA says it’s already following many of the report’s recommendations.

"Early this year, FRA added more staff, created an internal PTC task force to collect additional, specific data from railroads and initiated more frequent communication with railroads," agency spokesman Matthew Lehner says. "FRA will continue its efforts that go above and beyond its statutory requirements to assist railroads to implement positive train control as quickly and efficiently as possible."

The Association of American Railroads says the report was additional proof that Congress needs to extend the Dec. 31, 2015 PTC implementation deadline by three years.

"The GAO report reinforces the freight rail industry's contention that PTC is an extremely complex technology that requires more time to install and safely test," AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger says. He notes that the rail industry has consistently said the current deadline is unrealistic.

"But the fact that can’t be ignored is that time is quickly running out for taking action to extend the deadline and avoid the dire consequences of not doing so,"Hamberger says. "American businesses that use rail to move their goods and people that depend on rail to travel and get to work every day need to know they can count on Congress to do the right thing."

Last week, Class I railroad executives told the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee that they won’t meet the Dec. 31 deadline and that beginning Jan. 1 they may not be able to legally operate over lines where PTC is required but not yet operational. Railroads said they would refuse to haul toxic inhalation chemicals and would be forced to suspend all Amtrak and commuter rail service if the deadline is not pushed back.

Hamberger says Congress needs to act quickly to extend the deadline, rather than waiting until November or December. “If lawmakers want to avert a massive disruption of passenger and freight transport this fall, which will inflict significant hardships on businesses and passengers alike, it must take action now to extend the deadline,” he says.

The Senate has passed a PTC extension as part of a larger transportation bill. But that measure has languished in the House of Representatives. Railroads say they expect Congress will extend the deadline but the timing is uncertain.

Senate and House committee leaders, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., requested today’s GAO report.

"This GAO report confirms that the PTC mandate is not achievable, and extending the deadline is essential to preventing significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service across the country," Shuster says. "I am committed to working with Senator Thune and our colleagues to address the clear need for an extension, and to ensuring that railroads implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner."

"Passenger and freight railroads need time beyond the current deadline to finish implementation of a complex system that relies on new technology," Thune says. "Failure to extend this legal deadline would create significant hardships for customers and passengers who rely on railroads. Passing an extension that includes meaningful accountability for PTC implementation is the best thing Congress can do to enhance safety and avert a chaotic situation that would hurt our economy much more than the recent West Coast ports backup."


UPDATED: Sept. 16, 2015, 11:19 a.m. Central time: Comments from Federal Railroad Administration.
11:30 a.m. Central Time: Comments from Sen. Thune and Rep. Shuster.
12:47 p.m. Central time: Corrected spelling, Michael Lehner.
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