On October 5, an Amtrak passenger train, traveling through Vermont, derailed injuring six people, and, thankfully, killing none.
Oh, and that wasn’t the only one.
On Friday, a Canadian National Railroad train, which derailed in southeastern Mississippi, sparked an “evacuation and highway closure after rail cars began leaking fuel oil.”
We’ve covered a number of them (here, here, and here), most recently the Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia that killed 8 people and injured over 200 others. Sixty lawsuits have now been filed and consolidated before a federal judge in Philly.
It seems like our nation’s rail problems aren’t getting any better and our lawmakers haven’t done much to stop more of these accidents from happening. But it gets even worse. The powerful railroad industry has failed to complete some life-saving safety measures that Congress ordered several years ago, and with the deadline now imminent, it looks like Congress will be kicking the can down the tracks once again. Instead of actually advancing safety standards, Congress may be about to roll them back.
Let me explain. In 2008, after a horrific train accident in Chatsworth, California that killed 25 and injured over 200, Congress, with wide bipartisan support and the signature of President George W. Bush, passed a law mandating that all railroads implement safety technology, called “positive train control” (“PTC”), by December 31, 2015.
PTC, as it is known, involves a network of ground-based computers, onboard systems that monitor a train's speed and position, satellite relays and wireless spectrum-based communications from thousands of towers alongside railroad tracks.
It is a technology that the National Transportation Safety Board has been urging deployment of for over 45 years, and federal safety officials say would have prevented many recent fatal accidents including May’s deadly derailment outside of Philadelphia.
But now, with the end of the year deadline fast approaching and only 14% of the upgrades completed, railroad companies are lobbying for more time to implement the system across their network. Although they have already had nearly eight years to complete the job, they want Congress to pass an additional three-year extension, plus the ability to opt for an addition two-year deferment.
If they don’t get an extension, rail companies have threatened to “halt service rather than face fines and liability for operating without positive train control beyond the deadline.” According to NBC News,
If rail service really were to shut down on key parts of the nation's network, the economic impact would be fierce. As many as 1.7 million daily commuters would be stranded from taking their regular trains to work, forced to find alternatives.
The American Chemistry Council recently estimated that a single month of rail service disruptions could result in a 2.6 percent reduction to U.S. real GDP in the first quarter of 2016 — pulling $30 billion out of the economy. According to the ACC's report, the unemployment rate would rise by 0.3 percent, with a loss of 700,000 jobs, and household incomes would fall by more than $17 billion.
In other words, extortion. The railroad industry has so much economic leverage that it can dictate to Congress and the American people whatever it wants, even though people may die. And what choice will many in Congress have? They either capitulate to the railroad industry, risking lives, or chance serious economic consequences.
So with the White House clearly signaling that unless an extension is passed, the administration will enforce the PTC regulations starting at the beginning of the year, Congress has been scrambling for a way to give the rail companies what they want.
Their first strategy was to put a PTC extension into the “Drive Act” – a 1000 page transportation bill marred by controversy. We wrote about it here. But since the future of the 6-year transportation-funding bill is less certain than it once was, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have introduced separate legislation to extend the PTC deadline.
While this has now undoubtedly become a priority for lawmakers, even these bills face an uncertain future. In the Senate, some Democrats have refused to pass an extension to PTC systems without a vote on the Highway bill. And with the House in complete disarray, it’s hard to see how anything passes there.
It would be nice if there were as much effort to pass safety legislation as there is to repeal it.
With all of this kicking the can down the track, we may have self-driving cars before we will have safe trains in America.