Congress must no longer derail train-safety angst
A troubling report from the federal government released last week reveals a dangerously poor track record among many of America’s passenger and freight railroads. It shows the majority of them have failed miserably to meet congressional mandates to increase public safety and decrease death and injury tolls from derailments and other accidents.
In that report, the Federal Railroad Administration said many rail companies have made precious little movement in installing safety technology designed to prevent deadly collisions and derailments. That technology, known as Positive Train Control, uses digital radio communications, GPS and signals alongside tracks to monitor train positions.
The FRA calls that technology “the single-most important rail-safety development in more than a century. Simply put: PTC prevents many incidents caused by human error and saves lives.”
Contrast those realities with the multiple foot-dragging congressional extensions for rail companies to install and operate those PTC systems, a process first ordered to be 100 percent complete by the end of last year. Clearly, the speed at which that lifesaving system is implemented must accelerate quickly.
Congress passed a law in 2008 giving railroads seven years to put the technology in place, and last year extended that deadline for three more years after railroads said they were unable to meet the first one. How slow did they go?
Shockingly, as of June 30 of this year, only 9 percent of freight-route miles and 22 percent of passenger-train miles have been equipped, according to last week’s FRA report.
In Ohio and the Mahoning Valley, the track record is equally embarrassing and abysmal. CSX and Norfolk Southern railways – the two largest rail users in our region and state – have completed PTC on only 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of their total track segments, the report details.
To their credit, some rail companies have gone the extra mile to meet the original deadline. The majority, however, have not. Some decry the high cost – approximately $14 billion – of doing so.
To be sure, the rail safety improvements ordered eight years ago represent yet another in Congress’ string of unfunded mandates on businesses, health providers and state and local governments. But it didn’t have to be that way.
In the current 2017 fiscal-year budget, the administration of President Barack Obama had requested $1.25 billion to help commuter railroads install PTC, but Congress delivered a mere fraction of that amount – $199 million.
Apparently, some misguided congressmen and women remain unconvinced of PTC’s proven ability to prevent accidents and injuries and save lives. Others appear to be unwilling to put their money where their mouths are. Or could it be, the cynic in us might ask, that powerful and rich railroad lobbyists seek to derail the costly plans through generous money-talking donations?
Over the past eight years, for example, the railroad industry has spent more than $320 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, to fuel one of the most-sophisticated and active lobbying teams in Washington. It also contributed more than $24 million during the same period to the re-election of members of Congress, particularly those who hold oversight of public policy on rail transit.
Could it be that greed and seedy power broking also explain why Congress has stonewalled in committee a key rail-safety bill we endorsed more than a year ago.
That bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, also responds to rail-safety concerns, specifically those generated by the 40-fold increase in oil carried on freight trains over the past decade across the country. It would ensure companies replace outdated tanker cars with more modern, crash-resistant cars, would provide a tax credit to companies that upgrade their cars and funnel millions to safety forces for first-responder training in properly handling accidents and derailments.
Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to get on the right track and prove the cynics wrong this fall. It can do so by warning rail companies that absolutely no additional PTC deadline extensions will be granted. It also can do so by fast-tracking Brown’s sensible and potentially lifesaving proposal.