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No more breaks on positive train control, agency chief tells railroads

Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg testifies in March at a National Transportation Safety Board forum on injuries and fatalities to pedestrians and trespassers struck by trains.
Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg testifies in March at a National Transportation Safety Board forum on injuries and fatalities to pedestrians and trespassers struck by trains.

The nation’s rail safety chief told a group of railroad officials she expects them to complete a long-delayed collision-avoidance system by the end of 2018 and to not count on Congress to give them an additional reprieve.

Recent legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama gives them a three-year extension to complete positive train control, though with some wiggle room to seek an additional two years if necessary.

Sarah Feinberg, who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, encouraged attendees of the Rail Trends conference in New York Thursday to make 2018 their goal.

“Do not aim for 2020!” she said. “Do not assume that the Congress will give in and provide another extension.”

Feinberg will not be in office in 2018, however, and railroads will be dealing with a different administration and Congress.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 set Dec. 31, 2015 as the original deadline for positive train control. But cost and complexity delayed the $10 billion system. The Government Accountability Office, and the railroads themselves, warned that they would not finish it on time.

After Feinberg made clear over the summer that her agency intended to enforce the deadline and levy civil penalties on railroads that didn’t meet it, railroads threatened to curtail most freight and passenger service, beginning as early as November.

Last month, Congress attached the three-year extension for positive train control to a three-week highway funding bill that expires Friday.

In her remarks Thursday, Feinberg called the safety technology the most significant advance in the railroad industry in the past 100 years.

The system would automatically slow trains as they approach curves and would prevent trains from running past stop signals -- two developments that could prevent derailments and collisions.

“When we talk about PTC,” Feinberg said, “we are really talking about saving lives.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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