Lawmakers blame Congress for flawed braking system rollout
If Congress doesn't subsidize a pricey braking system for trains and push back a Jan. 1 deadline, the government could start fining Metra $25,000 a day, lawmakers said Monday.
The irony wasn't lost on U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, who with Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley urged their colleagues in Washington to resolve a crisis of Congress' own making.
"There's not a lot being done in Congress," Lipinski said at a news conference on Positive Train Control at Metra's LaSalle Street station in Chicago.
After a fatal 2008 train crash, Congress mandated railroads to install Positive Train Control by 2016. The technology applies brakes automatically when a crash is imminent, but it's costing railroads billions.
PTC is also time-consuming to install because of all the miles of track and high-tech gadgetry required. The Federal Railroad Administration has threatened to fine scofflaws, yet no railroads are expected to finish by Jan. 1.
Most legislators know this, but "no one wants to be the leader on an extension. No one wants it blamed on them if there's an accident," said Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat.
Metra Chairman Martin Oberman noted that Metra hasn't received any federal aid for PTC although it will cost the agency at least $350 million.
The safety system would protect passengers from crashes such as the one involving an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that killed eight people, said Quigley, a Chicago Democrat.
The three lawmakers used the occasion to push for a multiyear transportation bill they think should include PTC funding.
But even if Congress provides aid, the deadline is still a problem. BNSF Railroad is one of the closest to completion and could start testing on its Metra line later this year.
Lipinski anticipates Congress will wait until the last minute for deadline changes.
Durbin was opposed to a blanket extension.
"I believe if the railroads come forward with a good-faith plan to put PTC in place, I would be understanding," Durbin said.
Lipinski named the Canadian National Railroad as one that's dragging its feet.
"CN is further behind all the other railroads," Lipinski said. "It's not very cooperative in general."
CN spokesman Patrick Waldron said PTC "presents extraordinary technical and operational challenges for the U.S. rail industry, with much of the technology being developed from scratch."
CN is working on 3,800 miles of U.S. track and spending about $550 million. The railroad is updating the Federal Railroad Administration and "consulting with the agency's technical team to help advance its implementation," Waldron said.