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Urges fastest possible implementation of life-saving technology

Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today submitted a statement to the congressional record on positive train control, or PTC. Feinstein opposes the provision that would extend the deadline for railroads to implement the rail safety technology.

Current law states railroads must fully install PTC by the end of this year. For a variety of reasons, we all know this is not feasible for all railroads,” Feinstein said. “But we can’t let this drag on indefinitely. It’s a matter of public safety. We must get this done.”

Feinstein continued: “The PTC extension provision the House sent over is flawed. In my view, we need to be forcing railroads to implement this as soon as possible, and the House proposal fails to do that.”

“There are better options available,” she said. “In fact, we anticipated the need for an extension years ago and worked to find reasonable compromises.”

The full text of Feinstein’s statement follows:

“I rise today to speak about the unfortunate extension of the deadline for the implementation of positive train control, or PTC.

As one of the authors of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008—which established the PTC mandate—I stand here committed to ensuring that PTC is installed on all our nation’s railways as soon as possible.

Current law states railroads must fully install PTC by the end of this year. For a variety of reasons, we all know this is not feasible for all railroads. But we can’t let this drag on indefinitely.

It’s a matter of public safety. We must get this done.

The focus of the current debate has been on why an extension of the mandate is necessary, but I would like to take a step back and remind my colleagues why the mandate itself is necessary.

On September 12, 2008, the inattentive conductor of a Metrolink train—a commuter railroad in the Los Angeles area—missed a red light and entered a stretch of single track going the wrong way.

The train collided with a Union Pacific freight train, which completely demolished the first commuter car. The accident killed 25 and injured more than 100.

This was an absolute tragedy for my state and the country.

What is even more tragic: It was 100% preventable. Had PTC been installed, we would have avoided this tragedy.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending the installation of PTC since an accident in Connecticut in 1969. 

This technology is life-saving.  It prevents train-to-train collisions and over-speed derailments and other rail dangers.

PTC could have saved 25 lives in Chatsworth. In fact, PTC could have saved at least 288 lives and prevented more than 6,500 injuries in accidents across 36 states since 1969.

In 2008, at long last, Congress passed a law requiring PTC implementation by the end of 2015, giving railroads seven years to comply.

It is extremely disappointing that most railroads will not meet this deadline.

It didn’t have to be this way.

The passenger railroads in California took this legal and moral imperative seriously. They committed resources.

In fact, Metrolink will be the first system in the nation to fully implement Positive Train Control when the Federal Railroad Administration give its final certification by the end of this year.

The Bay Area is also well ahead of the curve. Caltrain will begin operating PTC on its line between Gilroy and San Francisco by the end of the year, with final certification expected early next year.

These stories show that it can be done on time.

But the sad fact is, few railroads will meet the 2015 deadline, as mandated by law.

Yes, there were some unanticipated challenges and procedural hurdles that have contributed to the delay.

But more devastating were legal challenges from the industry and railroads failing to commit the necessary resources.

So here we are today, debating an extension.

Let me very clear: the PTC extension provision the House sent over is flawed.

In my view, we need to be forcing railroads to implement this as soon as possible, and the House proposal fails to do that.

Instead, it gives all railroads a blanket extension until 2018 (even those that would be done well before then).

The Secretary of Transportation can take enforcement actions against railroads that miss certain annual milestones between now and 2018, but the railroads themselves get to establish those milestones in the first place.

After the 3-year blanket extension, railroads can request an additional 2-year extension so long as a railroad is about halfway complete with implementation.

That means they will have until 2020—12 years after Congress first mandated the technology, and 50 years since the National Transportation Safety Board began calling for it.

This is effectively a 5-year extension, precisely what railroads have been lobbying for.

There are better options available.

In fact, we anticipated the need for an extension years ago and worked to find reasonable compromises.

First, in 2012, we tried to modify the mandate.

I supported a provision that passed the Senate in that year’s transportation reauthorization bill.

It would have kept the deadline in 2015, but allowed the administration to grant up to three 1-year extensions to railroads on a case-by-case basis only when necessary, and where railroads were working diligently.

But the railroads wanted 5 years, and the provision was dropped from the final bill.

Then earlier this year, debate began anew. The Commerce Committee approved a bill that would provide railroads with a blanket extension of five to seven years.

I thought that was reckless and unnecessarily long.

Together with several of my colleagues, we reintroduced separate legislation along the lines of the provision that passed the Senate in 2012.

This started negotiations that led to the two different provisions now included in the House and Senate transportation reauthorization bills.

These provisions are each much improved from a blanket five to seven year extension, but both remain flawed.

In my view, it would be fair and reasonable for the remaining policy differences between these two provisions to be resolved during conference.

I hope the conference would lead to a policy that takes the best parts of both approaches, and would be packaged as part of a bill that provided sufficient resources for the commuter railroads to comply with the mandate. We should let that process play out.

We should not rush to pass bad policy on this 3-week extension.

Mr. President, I now want to take a moment to describe something that has disturbed me throughout this entire process.

That is the aggressive stance of the railroad industry.

As we’ve seen in public, railroads have threatened to stop service for rail passengers around Christmas, and stop transporting certain chemicals before that.

 Union Pacific’s demand letter was the most explicit, acknowledging that “this will cause significant economic disruption for our country,” but that it “is in the best interest of our employees and shareholders.”

The railroads claim that the fines that will be charged next year by the Federal Railroad Administration would be so draconian that they would be unable to continue operating as railroads.

It is very difficult to believe the government would fine railroads to such an extreme. The government’s goal is simply to compel the fastest possible implementation of PTC.

The railroads also say that in the event of a PTC-preventable accident, they would be liable for excessive damages. But as we all know, there is a liability cap for passenger accidents.

 And for hazardous materials accidents, the railroads have been shipping chlorine and ammonia for decades. It is offensive that only when a railroad could face full liability for an accident that they find operation without PTC to be unacceptably dangerous.

The railroads’ overtly political threats of economic calamity are not constructive. They serve only to create a hysterical atmosphere that prevents meaningful negotiations.

It is entirely inappropriate that the railroad industry would make hostages of America’s passenger rail services and chemical shippers in order to secure their favored legislative outcome.

Mr. President, what we are discussing today is a bad proposal. We should be prioritizing public safety. But this House-passed provision does not.

The proper place for this debate is in the long-term transportation reauthorization bill.

It’s very unfortunate that this has been attached to a must-pass short term extension of the highway trust fund.”

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