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Senate may delay installation of rail safety systems for another 3 years

By Doug G. Ware
Senate may delay installation of rail safety systems for another 3 years
An Amtrak train slowly passes a police car as it travels near the site of a deadly train crash in Philadelphia, May 18, 2015. The U.S. Senate has for years mandated the installation of safety systems across the nation, but the deadline to implement them might be postponed for another three years. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, July 23 (UPI) -- The United States Senate will consider a measure that would delay for three years the deadline for installing federally-mandated rail safety systems, which were required by Congress seven years ago following decades of delays.

Experts say the most recent disaster, an Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia two months ago that killed eight people, is an example of exactly the type of disaster the safety controls are designed to prevent. Congress called for the systems in 2008 and gave railroads seven years to implement the systems -- called positive train control.

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So far, very few railways have installed it. And their deadline, December 2015, may now become December 2018 if the Senate bill passes.

The issue seems to be financial, as some struggling railroads are finding it difficult to pay for positive train control. Under the original plan, railways will be subject to federal fines if they keep operating without the safety systems beyond Dec. 31.

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However, the Senate Transportation Committee said the U.S. Department of Transportation and Government Accountability Office have determined that "the current December 31, 2015 deadline is not feasible for the vast majority of freight and commuter railroads."

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At the same time, though, the committee said it wants to see the systems installed "as soon as practicable."

"[Without] this bi-partisan solution, our nation's freight and commuter railroads may be forced to cease some or all service at the deadline as a result of unknown liability risk," it said.

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Some lawmakers, though, strongly oppose the postponement -- particularly those from the Northeast, where rail service is far more common than it is in other parts of the country.

"It should be done immediately. There shouldn't be an extension," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, said. "Given the high number of accidents, and given the fact that [the system] is really effective, they should stick with 2015."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., said he was "deeply disturbed about yet another delay in a potential safety measure," the New York Times reported.

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Some feel that the government should not delay the deadline for such a significant safety upgrade, particularly because railroads have had nearly a decade to figure out how to pay for and install the systems. Further, even in 2008 the implementation of the systems had already been delayed for decades.

"Seven years, in my judgment, is a long time and an adequate time to do it," former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker said in the Times report. "The technology is out there. Let's put it in."

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Perhaps more importantly, most critics say, is the idea that numerous victims of train accidents would be alive today had positive train controls been in place at the time of their respective crashes.

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"Obviously, the railroad lobbyists have gotten to Congress," Rosenker said. "We just had a horrible accident. People died and people ended up becoming paralyzed when that technology was available to the railroad. I am very disappointed."

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