Collins, Reed & House Colleagues Urge Administration to Support Implementation of Rail Safety Technology

Senators call for Administration to immediately take necessary steps to speed implementation of Positive Train Control on railways

Washington, D.C. – This week, in an effort to enhance rail safety and prevent deadly accidents, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jack Reed (D-RI), who helm the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD), are urging Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) technology on our nation’s railways.  PTC technology, which prevents train-to-train collisions, over speed derailments, and unauthorized train movements by automatically taking control of the train in the event of an error by its human operators, is required by statute to be implemented by certain railroads carrying passengers and hazardous materials by the end of 2018, with the possibility of an extension to the end of 2020.  Collins and Reed, along with Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and David Price (D-NC), Chairman and Ranking Member of the House THUD Subcommittee, have sent a letter to Secretary Chao urging the Administration to immediately take steps to expedite installation of PTC by the statutory deadline.

 

“With the PTC deadline approaching at the end of this year, it is imperative for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to use resources provided by Congress to hire the necessary staff and contractors to provide guidance and certification of PTC implementation and for the Department to make available grant funding for railroads to accomplish this technologically challenging safety upgrade,” the Senators wrote.

 

The bicameral, bipartisan leadership of the THUD Subcommittee sent the letter in the wake of several major train accidents in recent months, including a recent collision in central South Carolina between an Amtrak train and an empty CSX freight train that killed two Amtrak crew members and injured 100 passengers.  Last December, an Amtrak train in Washington state derailed over a highway overpass, killing three people and leaving another 60 injured. 

 

The letter highlights the millions of dollars in funds provided to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for the implementation of PTC in recent years and the slow pace in hiring staff and awarding grant funds to assist railroads in meeting the deadline.

 

“The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 provided $218 million for FRA Safety and Operations, $5 million more than the requested level, specifically to fund the necessary staff for safety and PTC implementation,” the letter reads.  “A PTC Deputy Staff Director and positions for other technical specialists within the PTC organization remain vacant. In addition, regional and headquarters safety staff remain below targeted hiring numbers.”

 

“Congress also provided $68 million in FY 2017 for Consolidated Railroad Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants, which can be used for PTC implementation,” the letter continues. “Nine months later, the Department has yet to issue the Notice of Funding Opportunity for this program, which means funding will almost certainly not be awarded prior to the PTC deadline. Expeditiously awarding funding for safety-critical infrastructure is necessary for commuter railroads who face major funding challenges implementing PTC.”

 

“There have been far too many fatalities and injuries caused by rail accidents that could have been prevented by the implementation of Positive Train Control,” said Senator Collins.  “Senator Reed and I have worked with our colleagues to ensure the Federal Railroad Administration has sufficient funding to support railroads in implementing this important system.  The adoption of this lifesaving technology must be accelerated in order to protect railway passengers and operators.”

 

“In the wake of recent tragedies, it is deeply concerning that the Federal Railroad Administration has not used the resources we have provided to hire the staff and to issue grants that would speed the adoption of PTC throughout the country,” said Senator Reed.  “There is no reason for the Administration to continue to delay actions that will save lives and make railway travel safer for all Americans.  I am proud to join Senator Collins and our colleagues in the House to make sure that USDOT takes immediate action to speed the implementation of PTC.”  

 

The full text of the letter is below:

 

February 8, 2018                               

 

The Honorable Elaine Chao

Secretary

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Avenue SE

Washington, DC  20590

 

Dear Secretary Chao:

 

We write to express our concern regarding the progress of Positive Train Control (PTC) implementation on freight and passenger railroads, in light of recent fatal rail accidents that may have been prevented had PTC been in effect. With the PTC deadline approaching at the end of this year, it is imperative for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to use resources provided by Congress to hire the necessary staff and contractors to provide guidance and certification of PTC implementation and for the Department to make available grant funding for railroads to accomplish this technologically challenging safety upgrade.

 

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 provided $218 million for FRA Safety and Operations, $5 million more than the requested level, specifically to fund the necessary staff for safety and PTC implementation. A PTC Deputy Staff Director and positions for other technical specialists within the PTC organization remain vacant. In addition, regional and headquarters safety staff remain below targeted hiring numbers. These vacancies persist even though the FRA has more than $10 million available to fill them. The PTC deadline was extended by Congress more than two years ago, giving FRA ample time to hire the staff necessary to oversee the development and deployment of PTC nationwide. The Administration’s hiring freeze last year certainly did not help the situation. However, even now - nine months after the hiring freeze was lifted – there are no active postings to fill these staffing vacancies.

 

Congress also provided $68 million in FY 2017 for Consolidated Railroad Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants, which can be used for PTC implementation. Nine months later, the Department has yet to issue the Notice of Funding Opportunity for this program, which means funding will almost certainly not be awarded prior to the PTC deadline. Expeditiously awarding funding for safety-critical infrastructure is necessary for commuter railroads who face major funding challenges implementing PTC.

 

While we understand the nominee for Administrator of the FRA has yet to be confirmed, we expect the Department and the FRA to continue to work diligently to execute Congressional directives on PTC implementation. We ask that you provide to the Committee on Appropriations the hiring plans for the PTC organization, as well as the anticipated schedule for CRISI grants.

 

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to your prompt reply.

 

Sincerely,