House committee says railroads that miss PTC deadline may face fines

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WASHINGTON — Members of the House subcommittee that has spent the past decade pushing the railroad industry to adopt positive train control technology had praise for the lines that would meet the Dec. 31 deadline for PTC hardware installation, and warnings for the few that may not.

Committee members and industry witnesses spoke about the prospect of monetary penalties for railroads that failed to meet the deadline. As of Aug. 31, the Federal Railroad Administration identified nine “at risk” railroads, mostly commuter lines, among the 40 railroads that are required to have PTC in operation.

“Patience is growing thin on PTC implementation,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

Denham noted that the Sept. 13 hearing was one day after a 10th anniversary memorial in Chatsworth, Calif., for the 25 victims of a collision of a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train. The accident led to Congress enacting the PTC legislation.

Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., ranking member of the subcommittee, complimented the Class I railroads, Amtrak, and commuter carriers that would meet the deadline, or qualify for alternative compliance timetables.  But he had no sympathy for the commuter lines that were at greatest risk.

“I don't think you're going to find too many open minds on this side of the table,” if railroad officials offer excuses for not complying with the law, Capuano said.

“If people are not complying, you change the business calculation,” by forcing companies to factor in financial sanctions, said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn. She said the committee agreed unanimously to extend the original 2015 deadline for three years.

“It didn't work,” Esty said. “So what are people saying now? Take out the sticks.” She asked Ron Batory, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, “What it it going to take to get this done as fast as possible?”

Batory said financial penalties were “definitely a tool in the toolbox. But I'd like not to have to use that tool. But if that's the one you have to use in combination with everything else that we've invoked, I think we should do nothing less.”

In his written testimony, Batory said that in June and July, the agency had begun enforcement actions against 13 railroads that had not met hardware installation deadlines set down at the end of 2017.

Railroads that fail to meet the Dec. 31 deadline or qualify for an alternative PTC schedule are liable for fines up $27,904, Batory said. FRA was interpreting the law so the sum would be a one-time sanction, but Capuano said FRA wasn't doing enough.

“$27,000 one time is not the maximum fine. It's $27,000 per day, per railroad, every day,” Capuano said. The money could be used to help railroads, even the ones that were fined, “to help reprioritize their spending.”

Batory calls railroads that are struggling with the Dec. 31 deadline “to-be-compliant,” not noncompliant. While financial sanctions may be necessary, he emphasized importance of the “concentrated, concise, collaborative communication” process that FRA has used since the first of the year to expedite each railroad's progress toward compliance.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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