By Richard Wronski
Metra will likely face fines or other penalties for failing to meet a federally mandated deadline for installation of a high-tech safety system at the end of the year, the nation's top railroad regulator said Wednesday.
Metra won't be alone, however. Virtually every other commuter and freight railroad in the country will be unable to install the hugely expensive and complicated system, known as positive train control, by Dec. 31, officials said at a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.
PTC is "the single most important safety development in a century," said Sarah Feinberg, acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration. "The FRA will enforce the deadline as Congress has mandated."
Railroads that fail to meet the deadline could face fines of up to $25,000 per day.
But fining the railroads for missing the deadline makes no sense, Metra Executive Director Don Orseno testified, because that money would come from the same pot of funding Metra needs to pay for PTC and other safety programs, and infrastructure like new bridges.
"I don't think it would be in the public's best interests to fine railroads that already don't have enough funding to implement PTC," Orseno said. "We need to find another solution."
Congress has discussed an extension but not taken any action.
Metra estimates that it will cost more than $350 million to install PTC on its 11 lines and 1,200 miles of track. Orseno said the agency aims to have the system operable by 2019.
"Metra must cover these PTC costs by using the same federal and state sources that we use for other critical infrastructure projects," Orseno said. This amounts to about $133 million over the past two years.
Metra's task is complicated because its system also needs to be interoperable with the six major freight railroads that run through Chicago, Orseno said.
Congress in 2008 mandated PTC on most freight and commuter railroads but allocated no funding for it.
Using a network of GPS, radios, computers and antennas, PTC is intended to prevent accidents like the Amtrak wreck in Philadelphia on May 12 that killed eight people by slowing speeding trains and overriding human errors.
Freight railroads have spent $5.7 billion to date on PTC and expect to spend a total of $9 billion for full deployment, according to the Association of American Railroads. The American Public Transportation Association predicts commuter and passenger railroads will have to spend nearly $3.5 billion.
But Feinberg and some members of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials verbally sparred over the railroads' ability to meet the deadline, the necessity of fines for noncompliance and the Obama administration's assistance to railroads.
Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham, R-Calif., acknowledged that implementing PTC was "going to be a daunting undertaking."
Committee member Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., recently introduced legislation that would provide $200 million a year for PTC systems. That bill, however, has stalled in the House.
Another member, Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., said there was a "difference of opinion between the House and Senate" on whether to provide federal funding for PTC.
Frank Lonegro, a vice president for CSX Transportation, said PTC represents "an unprecedented technological challenge for railroads." For example, freight railroads must map some 62,000 miles of railroad right-of-way and 440,000 mileposts, signals and other equipment where PTC equipment must be installed, he said.
Because of this, Lonegro said, the deadline for implementation is unrealistic and should be extended.
Furthermore, Lonegro said, failure to make the deadline has the potential to make certain rail operations illegal, because the law requires that tracks be equipped with PTC.
This, he said, "creates a significant dilemma" and could shut down rail operations.
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