Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, Urban Development, and Related Agencies (THUD), held an oversight hearing yesterday to review railroads’ progress in implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) and raised awareness about the Department of Transportation’s rail safety programs. In addition, the hearing examined the dangers of highway-rail grade crossings.
“The issue of railroad safety has received heightened attention this year due to several disturbing accidents. The rail industry has made some improvements over the last decade, reducing the number of derailments by 35 percent since 2008 despite increasing service levels,” said Senator Collins. “Last year, however, the number of accidents and incidents increased compared to 2016. Among these incidents were several serious collisions that led to fatalities that, in some cases, could have been avoided with the use of proven technologies like positive train control and improvements to the safety culture through better training.”
“I am deeply disappointed that FRA has held back more than half of the money Congress appropriated for fiscal 2018 rail infrastructure grants, instead of making this much-needed federal assistance available for infrastructure across the nation. We provided additional funds to help railroads around the country catch up on mandatory safety improvements,” said Senator Reed, who noted that Appropriators included $362.5 million above the authorized level for consolidated rail infrastructure and safety improvements (CRISI) grants and required that at least $250 million go toward PTC implementation, but that FRA has been slow to get that money out. “FRA’s decision to withhold this funding will delay critical infrastructure investments and waste time that could have been spent building projects that address the safety challenges that cause the greatest number of deaths on our railroads.”
Although rail accidents have declined significantly since 2000, there were approximately 245 fatalities at railroad crossings and 590 trespasser fatalities at railroad tracks last year. In addition, recent high-profile collisions involving passenger trains in DuPont, Washington; Crozet, Virginia; and Cayce, South Carolina have shone a spotlight on the need for improved rail safety.
In 2008, Congress passed a law mandating the installation of PTC in the wake of a deadly crash between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, that killed 25 passengers. PTC is a proven system that precisely determines the location and speed of trains, warns train operators about potential problems, and overrides the controls if an operator does not respond to a warning. Implementation of PTC is very complex, involving numerous components, including communication signals between trains, signals along tracks, onboard systems and back-office servers. Due to these challenges, in 2015 Congress extended the deadline for railroads to implement PTC until the end of 2018. The technology, which would have prevented several deadly accidents in the past few years had it been in place, is urgently needed.
In his testimony, Stephen Gardner, the Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer of Amtrak, called PTC “one of the most critical tools that the rail industry needs to improve safety.” According to Mr. Gardner, “Amtrak is a leader in the installation of PTC, having already deployed systems across many of the tracks [it] control[s].” He referenced a recent letter Amtrak sent to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao notifying her that Amtrak is on schedule to complete the required installation of PTC on its infrastructure by the December 31, 2018, deadline.
Patricia Quinn, Executive Director of the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, noted that PTC must be part of a holistic approach to reducing rail accidents, including continued support for infrastructure investments and safety programs. “Working together, Amtrak, host railroads, and state partners like NNEPRA, in partnership with the federal government, have invested wisely and have made great strides in improving railroad safety for passengers, employees and communities,” said Ms. Quinn. “Although PTC adds a significant safety feature, opportunities and efforts to improve safety must and will continue far beyond this initiative.”
Yesterday’s hearing also examined other initiatives to help reduce rail accidents, such as preventing trespassing and improving highway-rail grade crossing safety.
- The Honorable Ronald Batory, Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration, Washington, D.C.
- Mr. Stephen Gardner, Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer, Amtrak, Philadelphia, PA
- Ms. Patricia Quinn, Executive Director, Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Portland, ME
- Mr. Art Leahy, CEO, Metrolink, Los Angeles, CA
Click HERE to read their testimonies.