Happening Now

Companies Facing Technology Deadline Must Keep Passengers, Freight on the Rails

September 10, 2015

Release #15-18

For Immediate Release (#15-18)

Contact: Benet J. Wilson


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Responding to public statements made by several Class 1 freight railroads, the National Association of Railroad Passengers is calling on Congress to preserve access to the safe movement of people and goods by taking appropriate steps to responsibly extend the deadline for implementing Positive Train Control (PTC) beyond December 31, 2015.

PTC is a signaling technology that helps prevents trains from colliding and traveling at unsafe speeds. Federal safety officials have determined it would have prevented the May 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that cost eight lives. Congress passed a law requiring PTC implementation on lines carrying passengers and toxic inhalation hazards (TIH) following a deadly train in Chatsworth, Calif., in 2008.

"Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring railroads to implement PTC technology with the right goals in mind: bringing the U.S. rail system in line with global best practices and prevent future accidents that cost lives," said NARP President and CEO Jim Mathews. "But a lack of a predictable stream of investment meant passenger railroads faced an enormous unfunded mandate. Now, with 2016 almost upon us and the majority of America's commuter railroads unable to meet the deadline, along with the railroads that host 72 percent of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains, we're faced with a tough dilemma about how best to proceed.

"Let's be clear, however: anything that shifts American commuters and families off of trains and onto highways is making our nation less safe and will endanger lives," added Mathews. "You're 17 times more likely to be killed in a car crash than a train accident, so for Congress to allow the absence of PTC to force commuters onto highways is the ultimate case of letting the perfect get in the way of the good."

Passenger trains are statistically the safest mode for passengers to travel, matched only by commercial aviation. In the most current data provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, highways accounted for more than 32,700 deaths a year. Passenger rail, meanwhile, accounted for 198, with only 11 from train accidents (the vast majority resulted from car-train collisions at grade crossings and railroad employee accidents).

NARP has been closely monitoring the situation and became alarmed earlier this summer when partners in the passenger and freight rail industry began contemplating plans to notify customers that they would discontinue service on January 1, 2016. Faced with ending service or breaking Federal Railroad Administration regulations, operators are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"This is not just about trains," said Mathews. "NARP is working to create a connected America, where modes work together to work as safely and efficiently as possible. I know that I don't want toxic materials being transferred from rail cars--where they are safely handled by trained professionals--to tanker trucks on the highways where my wife, my children and I drive."

In a statement submitted to the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Surface Transportation in February 2015, NARP offered a framework for responsibly extending the deadline for PTC implementation. Accepting that compliance with the December 31, 2015, statutory deadline is not feasible, NARP recommends that any new law which changes that deadline should:

(1) Grant authority to the Secretary of Transportation, on an individual company basis, to give up to three, consecutive 18-month extensions, bringing the latest possible date of compliance 4-1/2 years after the current deadline, or June 30, 2020.

(2) Change the law so that heavily traveled mainlines are not exempt because they happen to be owned by other than a Class 1; and

(3) Explicitly require the prevention of low-speed, rear-end collisions -- of which there have been fatal ones within the past four years. The system as currently being installed does not know the length of trains, and therefore cannot prevent low-speed, rear-end collisions.

About the National Association of Railroad Passengers

NARP is the only national organization speaking for the users of passenger trains and rail transit. We have worked since 1967 to expand the quality and quantity of passenger rail in the U.S. Our mission is to work towards a modern, customer-focused national passenger train network that provides a travel choice Americans want. Our work is supported by more than 28,000 individual members nationwide.