INSIGHT: Effort to delay positive train control gathers steam

29 August 2013 18:23  [Source: ICIS news]

New effort afoot to delay positive train controlBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--Yet another effort is under way in Congress to push back the 2015 deadline for vastly improved freight rail safety measures, but while both industry and railroads support a delay, congressional inertia could leave the 2015 mandate in place.

Everyone supports implementation of positive train control (PTC), but stakeholders and even members of Congress argue that putting that technology in place across 60,000 miles of US passenger and freight rail tracks in time for the 31 December 2015 deadline is just too large a task.

In addition, rail operators warn that if the 2015 deadline for PTC implementation is forced, the commitment of capital, technology and necessary workforce assets could actually diminish safety and security by diverting funds and work from other pressing railroad maintenance or upgrade work.

Two bills aimed at extending the 2015 PTC deadline by several years were moved in Congress in 2012, but neither advanced to full floor votes in both the House and Senate.

Now Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, is taking another shot at getting PTC postponed.

With bipartisan support - from one other Republican and two Senate Democrats - Thune argues that forcing rail operators and freight shippers to meet the 2015 PTC deadline could create as many risks as it might resolve.

Thune said that his bill, S-1462, the “Railroad Safety and Positive Train Control Extension Act”, builds on findings last year by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that identified several technical and programmatic reasons for delays in implementing PTC.

Among them, he said, are “complex and often costly issues involving communications spectrum, design specification, server and dispatch system availability, track database verification, installation engineering, reliability and availability of system technology”.

Resolving those issues in the two-and-a-half years remaining under the existing deadline would be problem enough, but Thune and his cosponsors also note that there are serious issues with budget constraints and stakeholder capacity.

“Without extension,” Thune said, “many passenger and freight railroads will be unable to meet the current unrealistic deadline of 31 December 2015, and would be forced to decide between stopping service and operating in violation of the law."

Thune said that the FRA could not simply turn a blind eye to operators who fail to meet the 2015 deadline.

“The FRA could be exposed to liability if it were to allow railroads to operate without PTC after the deadline,” he said.

Authorised by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, PTC involves the use of signals, sensors along the track and equipment on train engines to communicate train location, the train’s speed and track speed limitations along with moving authority - which trains have the go-ahead to move on specific lines - to central monitoring stations.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), PTC technology could prevent accidents caused by train operator or dispatcher error.

A Congressional Research Service (CRS) study found that PTC could be expected to reduce the number of accidents due to excessive speed, conflicting train movements and engineer failure to obey wayside signals.

Those in the railroad operating command centre would have the ability to slow or even stop a train that was at risk for an accident.

The CRS study also found that despite the clear safety benefits of positive train control, “its implementation entails substantial costs and presents a variety of other policy-related issues”, including “the interoperability of individual railroads’ systems, sufficient radio spectrum to support PTC and the possibility that PTC could be a barrier to market entry”.

PTC would without question raise operating costs, and rail operators and high-volume freight shippers such as chemicals manufacturers differ on how those costs should be covered.

Rail carriers essentially want the cost to be absorbed by producers and shippers of high-risk cargoes - known as toxic inhalant hazard (TIH) cargoes - while the chemicals sector argues that the costs should be spread across all freight shipments.

A study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) indicated that if the estimated $10bn (€7.5bn) cost of PTC implementation were allocated across all rail cargo freight, the cost per carload could increase by $23. 

However, according to the study by consulting firm Snavely King, if those costs were allocated only to hazmat cargoes, the per-carload cost could increase by up to $10,000.

While the four major rail carriers and high-volume freight shippers ultimately may resolve the cost-sharing issue, there is also a risk that small, short-line rail operators - often key players in the overall US rail system - could be squeezed out of the transportation market.

Laying any new track would have to comply with PTC criteria, which adds to the cost of new construction and could deter expansion by smaller carriers. In addition, as the CRS study found, on-board PTC communications and monitoring equipment is expected to cost around $55,000 per locomotive.

That constitutes a minor increase in the cost of a new $2m locomotive, CRS noted, “but it is substantial compared to the $75,000 cost of used locomotives operated by some short-line railroads”.

“In addition to capital costs, operating and maintenance costs will increase as well,” the CRS study said, adding: “This could be a barrier to both railroad expansion and start-up services.”

US chemical manufacturers have long complained that they are subject to unfair freight pricing by rail operators when a specific production site is served, as is often the case, by only a single rail carrier.  Such one-carrier locations are known as “captive shippers”.

If the fast-track PTC implementation mandate is maintained, the US conceivably could see some smaller carriers shut down, which in turn could create still more captive shipper woes for chemical makers.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), the principal trade group for rail carriers, also backs the Thune bill, saying that while rail operators have made substantial progress in preparing for and implementing PTC, “the immense technological hurdles are such that a reliable, nationwide and interoperable PTC network will not be completed by the current deadline”.

AAR said that while railroads are committed to implementing PTC, “more time is needed to ensure safe and effective implementation on the nation’s vast freight and passenger rail networks”.

Thune’s bill would provide that time by extending the PTC deadline five years to 31 December 2020 and to the end of 2022 in some special circumstances.

But even in the best of times when both parties in Congress are awash in the milk of human kindness, it can be difficult to get legislation passed. 

In the current and longstanding friction between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat majority in the Senate, getting even mundane bills - such as naming post office buildings - can get bogged down or sidelined.

Because the Thune bill and PTC involve rail safety - and some horrific chemical or bulk fuel cargo accidents in recent years - getting both chambers of Congress to agree on postponing positive train control could be a major challenge.

The Thune measure has little chance of getting approved by the House and Senate as a stand-alone bill, especially as the critical 2014 midterm elections loom, according to sources on Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress up for re-election in November next year - which means every member of the House and a third of sitting senators - will not want to expose themselves to charges of being weak on rail safety and the protection of communities through which freight trains run, often day and night.

However, given the bill’s bipartisan backing and support from the major stakeholders among rail operators and high-volume rail shippers, sources say the bill just might get passed as a low-profile amendment to a larger spending bill or some other must-pass legislation.

But if PTC postponement is not achieved, rail operators and shippers will be obliged to rush ahead with high-dollar spending and work in anticipation of the existing 31 December 2015 deadline.

($1 = €0.75)

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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