Hamberger: Nation’s railroads safer than ever, PTC deadline too soon

Written by Jenifer Nunez, assistant editor

Association of American Railroads President and CEO Edward Hamberger on June 19 told a Senate Commerce Committee panel that massive private investments in safety-enhancing infrastructure and maintenance on such things as tracks, new equipment, as well as employee training and cutting-edge technologies, have helped make the nation's railroads safer than ever in their history.


Hamberger noted that a focus on safety is evident in the industry’s continuously improving safety record, with 2012 registering as the safest year ever for freight railroads. According to Federal Railroad Administration data, between 1980 and 2012 the railroad train accident rate fell 80 percent, employee injury rate fell 85 percent and the grade-crossing collision rate fell 82 percent. Since 2000, the declines have been 44 percent, 51 percent and 45 percent, respectively, indicating that rail safety continues to improve. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, railroads also have lower employee injury rates than all other modes of transportation.

“Why are railroads safer than ever before? Because railroads are investing more than ever before to grow and maintain their rail network. Investments and maintenance work totaling $25.5 billion this year are being made in things that make the railroads much safer,” Hamberger said. “Safety permeates everything railroads do, from decisions in the board room, to work along the tracks, in rail yards or shop floors, to training in classrooms and on simulators. Everything we do is done in the name of improving safety.”

These safety-enhancing investments have included roughly $2.8 billion spent since 2008 on implementing positive train control (PTC) technology in an effort to meet a deadline of December 2015 as mandated by the Rail Safety Improvement Act. Due to both technological and non-technological challenges that have arisen throughout the implementation process, however, freight railroads have determined it will not be possible to have a fully interoperable nationwide PTC system up and running by the 2015 deadline. Hamberger said the current 2015 deadline should be extended by at least three years, to Dec. 31, 2018, with flexibility given to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation to consider additional extensions should they be deemed necessary.

“A lot of progress toward implementing PTC has been made to date and railroads are working extremely hard to meet the 2015 deadline, collaborating with federal regulators and suppliers all throughout the process,” Hamberger said. “There will be a lot of PTC implemented throughout the nation’s rail network by 2015, but there will not be a fully-interoperable system in place by then. While the deadline is important and something we never lose sight of, it is paramount that we end up with a PTC system that allows for the safe passage of both passengers and freight.”

Hamberger noted that another obstacle to making the 2015 deadline is the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) regulatory process for constructing and placing PTC antenna structures. Railroads need to install more than 20,000 new antenna structures nationwide to transmit PTC signals. Almost 97 percent of these will be relatively small poles installed on railroad rights-of-way.

According to the FCC, all PTC antenna structures are subject to the National Environmental Protection Act and National Historic Preservation Act. Under FCC rules, every PTC antenna could be subject to a separate environmental evaluation process.

“We are hoping for a resolution that allows the timely deployment of PTC and are hopeful that a workable solution is devised,” Hamberger said. “If every one of the 20,000-plus antennas needs to be reviewed separately, we can assume that PTC deployment will be further delayed.”

Categories: C&S, Class 1, Commuter/Regional, OFF Track Maintenance, Shortline/Regional