Senate delayed train safety rule days before Hoboken accident

WASHINTON D.C. – Just eight days prior to the deadly Sept. 29 N.J. Transit train crash that killed one person and injured 108, a GOP-run U.S. Senate panel approved legislation delaying for five years implementation of Positive Train Control, a safety system that could have prevented the accident.

By voice vote and without giving reasons, members of the GOP-run Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation on Sept. 21 to delay  PTC for at least another five years – and to tell the federal government to write rules that could exempt small railroads from implementing it at all.

PTC is satellite- and radio-based automatic technology to slow or halt a train that is going too fast for a particular stretch of track. Lack of PTC was one reason for the fatal Amtrak crash in northeast Philadelphia several years ago, for a prior fatal commuter-freight collision in Los Angeles and for the fatal N.J. Transit train crash in Hoboken Sept. 29.

Rail unions and their members are pushing two key rail safety measures to prevent such future crashes: Requiring at least two crew members on every rail and passenger train, and PTC. The railroads argue for a delay in PTC due to its cost, and they want to cut freight train crews to one person, the engineer. One rail executive advocates crewless freights, too.

The original deadline to install PTC install nationwide was the end of last year. But when the railroads claimed that was too expensive, Congress extended it. Now the Commerce Committee, prodded by Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt (R) and Claire McCaskill (D), voted for another extension, to 2020 and beyond.  The measure’s other backers are all Republicans.

Their bill, S650, doesn’t even mandate the big railroads install PTC by the end of 2020. Instead each big carrier – plus Amtrak and commuter railroads – shall “submit a plan” to the federal Transportation Department by then to install and implement it “on certain of its tracks.” But the agency can extend that deadline, year by year, too.

Once the federal agency approves a railroad’s PTC plan, the carrier has five years to actually install the technology in its locomotives, S650 says.

“We must work to do everything we can to improve train safety and accident prevention without burdening our nation’s freight and passenger rail industry,” said Blunt when he introduced the PTC delay bill last year. “Unmanageable deadlines could result in higher costs and a disruption of service. This bipartisan bill will help ease the positive train control deadline to give railroads…enough time to fully and safely implement this new technology.”

McCaskill justified her support for the delay by saying that neither Amtrak nor the Missouri Transportation Department have the money — $30 million combined – to install PTC on Amtrak lines there.

“Details have yet to be clarified, but Washington does seem ready to grant an extension to Amtrak. If that occurs, then there should be no sign of relief, only a concerted effort to meet the new deadline to make sure Amtrak continues to offer an alternative to using Missouri’s troubled highway system,” McCaskill told the Warrensburg Star-Journal last year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., spoke up against S650 when Blunt first unveiled it, citing a fatal commuter train crash into a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., years before. PTC, federal safety officials said, could have prevented that crash.

Blunt’s bill “effectively is just kicking the can down road once more,” Feinstein said. “This blanket extension…rewards” railroads “that have chosen delay over action. More troubling, it could have deadly consequences for Americans across the country.”

Photo: AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.