Better late than never. But still not enough.
A major U.S. rail transportation watchdog said Thursday that progress on rail safety is welcomed albeit tardy by years.
“My boss worked in aviation for years, and he’s been scratching his head at how this industry functions with the government,” said Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of government affairs for the National Association of Railway Passengers. Jeans-Gail said the government seems much less organized in its oversight of railways than over airways.
Specifically, Amtrak and America’s other passenger rail companies were given until the end of this year – a full decade – to implement what’s known as Positive Train Control systems. Mandated in 2008, it is an advanced software system that automatically stops trains before certain accidents occur, notably potential train-to-train collisions and derailments due to excessive speeds.
Now, 10 years later, the nonpartisan General Accountability Office found that two-thirds of 29 commuter railroads may not meet that deadline. Susan Fleming, GAO director of physical infrastructure, said the more compliant railroads on average needed two years just for field testing, which other railways haven’t even started.
Passenger rail travel is relatively safer compared to air or highway travel. But there have been five deadly accidents just on Amtrak in the past three months, which contribute to a heightened sense of urgency.
Among the fatalities were two killed in South Carolina, two in North Carolina, one in California, one in Virginia – caused by a train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat – and three in Washington state, in addition to hundreds of injuries.
While more recent crash causes are still under investigation, Barry DeWeese, assistant inspector general for surface transportation audits with the Department of Transportation, said the Washington crash would have been prevented by the mandated safety measures.
Still, Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson told a congressional committee Thursday it was “highly probable” that some of its systems would not meet the deadline for those safety enhancements.
Railway executives said the issue was not a manner of money, but of time and finding the expertise to install proper software. The Department of Transportation has already provided $3 billion in federal funding to implement the system.
Anderson said there could be “significant cancellations of necessary railroad operations” that carry “hundreds of thousands of people per day,” without a deadline extension, echoing the same concerns from 2015.
Senators were outraged. “They’re not spending the money, and they’ve had the time, so is this a question of commitment?” asked Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., at a Senate hearing on the latest delay.
“If (the delay is due to) a lack of commitment, it’s a serious, serious issue, because we have people dying on our roads,” Peters said.
Rob Healy, vice president of government affairs for the American Public Transportation Association, said all commuter railroads have been “working diligently” to implement the system. If they don’t meet the 2018 deadline, they’re working to at least qualify for a maximum two-year extension the Federal Railroad Administration can grant to commuter railroads with “sufficient progress” without congressional action.
Despite harsh words from senators over the railways’ lagging safety efforts during the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, it’s unclear if the companies will face penalties over missing the latest deadline.
Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., told McClatchy he would not consider another deadline extension, but said shutting down hundreds of miles of rails would be a “major issue.”
“There could be financial penalties, but I think it’s a little preliminary to talk about at this point because I’m hoping they’re going to (meet the deadline), and we want to help them in any way that we can,” Thune commented after the hearing had ended.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the committee’s top Democrat, blasted the rail companies, calling their requests for more time “tiresome.”
But after the hearing in an interview with McClatchy he simply said “everything is on the table,” declining to speak specifically on penalties or extensions.