U.S. DOT scales back rules for implementing new train safety technology

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced today it would scale back regulations governing the installation of positive train control (PTC) equipment.

The U.S. DOT argues that the changes, implemented following talks between the railroad industry and the Federal Railroad Administration, will give railroads additional flexibility and save money, without compromising the safety of passengers or communities situated around tracks: 

Under the revisions announced today, railroads will no longer have to conduct risk analyses to obtain approval to not install PTC or take other costly risk mitigation measures on an estimated 10,000 miles of track that will not carry passenger trains or poison inhalation hazard (PIH) commodities after December 2015.  Railroads are expected to save approximately $335 million over the first five years, and up to $775 million over 20 years, by utilizing safety measures other than PTC, where appropriate.

FairWarning, a public interest journalist group, has been following the PTC story for a few years, and does a good job of providing some context to the U.S. DOT's decision:

Known as Positive Train Control, or PTC, the high-tech systems previously were projected to cover an estimated 70,000 miles of track used by trains carrying passengers or extremely hazardous materials such as chlorine.  The safeguards, as FairWarning has reported, are due to be installed by the end of 2015 under legislation passed by Congress in response to the deadly head-on train crash in Chatsworth, Calif.

The administration said the exemption would apply only to track that will not be used to carry passengers or the most dangerous cargo. The rollback – which had been expected and was one of a package of regulatory breaks for business that the Obama administration announced this morning — was spurred by a legal challenge by the Association of American Railroads, which represents freight haulers and Amtrak.


Today’s action followed industry complaints that the Transportation Department was imposing “a staggering and unjustified burden” that went beyond the intent of Congress. The industry also argued that regulators wrongly tried to require railroads to put PTC on track that, by the end of 2015, no longer will be used to haul chlorine or other extremely hazardous materials. 

Not everyone's entirely pleased with the U.S. DOT's scale-back—including NARP President Ross Capon.  He had this to say to FairWarning about the decision:

[Capon] expressed disappointment. He said the Transportation Department’s Federal Railroad Administration “is kind of gun shy.”

“Everything they do, they get accused of regulatory overreach, even if it’s clearly necessary to comply with existing laws,” Capon said.

He also blamed the action on “an intense effort by the industry to minimize the number of track miles where PTC will be installed and, obviously, thus to increase the number of track miles where … train collisions of any kind will continue to be possible.”

The PTC requirement was implemented in 2008, following the deadly Metrolink commuter train crash in Chatsworth that cost the lives of 25 people, injuring 135 others.  A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that crash resulted from human error on the part of the locomotive engineer, and could have been prevented with a properly configured PTC system.

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