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Obama administration heeds industry call to ease rail safety rules

May 11, 2012

Railway companies and whistleblowersPosted with permission from FairWarning.org:

The Obama administration yesterday announced that it will scale back federal rail safety rules spurred by a Southern California train wreck in 2008 that killed 25 people and hurt 135 others.

The administration said it will slash by 10,000 miles the amount of railroad track that needs to be covered by systems that can override human error and automatically put the brakes on trains about to collide or derail.

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.

In a separate move to scale back PTC requirements, the railroads association and other industry lobbyists have backed calls by Congressional Republicans to postpone the PTC deadline for up to five years. A more modest change that would allow Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to approve deadline extensions on a case-by-case basis until the end of 2018 is currently before a Congressional conference committee.

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.

To settle the litigation, the Transportation Department last August announced a plan to reduce the amount of track required to have PTC. Today’s announcement made this final.

LaHood, in a news release, portrayed the decision as “ensuring the safety of our nation’s railroads while reducing regulatory barriers,” and in keeping with President Obama’s executive order to cut unnecessary regulation.

Over 20 years, the Transportation Department said, the regulatory change will save railroads up to $775 million, reducing the overall cost of installing and operating PTC over that period to about $12.3 billion.

Reactions were mixed. U.S. Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, a California Democrat who has opposed calls in the House for an across-the-board delay in PTC, said the regulations “will help protect us from future accidents while granting a reasonable level of flexibility for the railroads and the Department of Transportation.”

But Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, 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 Association of American Railroads didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an advisory agency that for decades has sought PTC installation, said it could not provide comment until officials reviewed the decision. But the agency previously has said such an action by the department could crimp regulators’ flexibility to require PTC on troublesome track not specifically designated by Congress for the safety technology.

Metrolink, operator of the commuter train that was involved in the head-on collision with a freight train in the deadly 2008 California accident, has become a leading advocate of PTC. It said today that its plan to cover its full 512-mile system with PTC by mid-2013, well ahead of the deadline, will not be affected by today’s news.

About FairWarning

FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a nonprofit, online news organization focused on issues of safety, health and government and business accountability.