“The funding in the recently passed transportation bill and in the bill that funds the government for the next year are good starts,” Feinberg said in a statement, “but more is needed for commuter railroads.”
That’s because PTC is mandatory for commuter rails and those that transport hazardous materials, both of which make up a big chunk of the country’s total rail network. But meeting that mandatory rule is in doubt. In the comprehensive transportation bill Congress passed earlier this month, $199 million was allocated for PTC on commuter rails, the first time Congress had dedicated funding specifically for the technology. But that money, combined with the omnibus allocation, still falls a staggering $600 million short of the figure the Federal Railroad Administration has requested in the last two years: $825 million “to assist commuter railroads with the implementation of PTC and additional funding to aid with the implementation of PTC on Amtrak’s national network,” according to testimony Feinberg gave in June. Meanwhile, the omnibus allocation doesn’t even specify that funding must be used solely for PTC; it could be used to implement other safety measures, too.
The railroads’ deadline for installing PTC has also been controversial. Until recently, the railroads had a December 31, 2015, deadline to implement the technology, per the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. But a majority of rail lines weren’t on track to meet it. In October, Congress granted the railroads a three-year extension, with “wiggle room” for an additional two more years after an intense lobbying push by the industry and threats of a commuter-rail and freight shutdown. Northeast Democrats strongly disapproved of the extension: They want more funding for PTC, but they also don’t want the railroads to get away with not installing it for many more years. According to a report in The New York Times, proponents of the extension say the extra time will help because “the equipment is costly and time-consuming to install across thousands of miles of track.”
But Feinberg warned railroad officials at a conference last month that they must not assume Congress will push back the deadline again, and she emphasized PTC’s life-saving implications—just as she had back in June, when she predicted more accidents to come: “If PTC is not fully implemented by January 1, 2016, we can and should expect there to be accidents in the months and years to follow that PTC could have prevented.”
After the Philadelphia crash last spring, lawmakers held a hearing to find out what went wrong on train 188 and how PTC could have helped. (Though PTC wasn’t fully implemented on the Philadelphia track at the time, Amtrak is now on target to finish it on the entire Northeast Corridor, the country’s busiest rail line, by the end of the year. Amtrak isn’t eligible for the omnibus funding.) At the hearing, Representative Maloney cited an accident on the Metro-North commuter rail line, where a 2013 derailment killed four people. He blamed Congress itself for not giving railroads the tools they need to make safety improvements: “Of all of the people who ought to be apologizing for these accidents that keep happening because we don’t have the safety systems in place, the United States Congress maybe ought to be at the top of the list, wouldn’t that be fair to say?” he asked Feinberg. “I think that would be fair to say,” Feinberg answered.