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June 29, 2015 12:15 PM, EDT

FRA Says it Will Levy Fines for PTC Violations, Effective Jan. 1

Feinberg via Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
The Federal Railroad Administration signaled that effective Jan. 1 it would begin levying fines against freight and passenger railroads if their positive train control projects are not completed.

Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg said the Department of Transportation would take the action because the crash-prevention tool known as PTC, whose 2015 completion was mandated seven years ago, “is arguably the single-most important railroad safety development in more than a century.”

The technology is designed to prevent crashes such as the fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia on May 12. It is being required for freight rail routes that carry poisonous or toxic-by-inhalation commodities as well as lines carrying passengers.

Her testimony before a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee clashed with the Association of American Railroads’ effort to win legislation that delays the PTC implementation deadline by five years to the end of 2020.

“The freight rail industry has been working all out on PTC implementation but was transparent early on when it warned policymakers the arbitrary deadline of 2015 was unachievable,” Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for AAR, told Transport Topics. “Unless Congress acts to remove the current Dec 31, 2015, deadline, the freight and passenger railroads that are obligated to install PTC face a very difficult choice.”

He noted that in addition to fines, freight railroads face the prospect of court actions if the deadline isn’t met. If services are stopped or reduced, the carriers face the prospect of other claims and liability arising from obligations to provide rail service.

“Putting aside liability concerns, the negative impacts of any service reduction would be felt across the network by everyone who relies directly or indirectly on rail transportation,” Greenberg said. “Each railroad will need to evaluate a choice on its own and make its own decision about what to do to balance all these interests.”

“It is simply not possible to complete a nationwide, interoperable PTC system by the end of 2015,” said Frank Lonegro, a CSX vice president who testified at the hearing.

Feinberg didn’t say how FRA would penalize railroads, saying the enforcement strategy is being finalized. She did say the amount of penalty will depend on implementation progress.

Among the penalty options are as much as $15,000 to $25,000 per day, per locomotive for not equipping engines with PTC.

The railroads already have spent $5.7 billion on installing PTC. AAR projects that by year-end, 39% of locomotives will have the equipment, 34% of employees will be trained and that two-thirds or more of communications technology will be in place.

“Regulators and safety advocates have been calling on the rail industry to implement some form of PTC for many decades,” Feinberg said. “For several years, FRA has been sounding the alarm that most railroads have not made sufficient progress in implementing PTC.”

She noted that railroads promised five years ago to finish PTC this year, adding that FRA has spent, requested or supported funding for about $2.4 billion for technology related to the implementation.

“From the beginning, the PTC mandate was going to be a daunting undertaking,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who is chairman of the subcommittee. “While similar systems exist in Europe, and on some portions of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, PTC has never been implemented on such a scale and has never required such a high level of interoperability.”