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Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

Repost from the Washington Post

Deadline for train safety technology undercut by industry lobbying

By Ashley Halsey III and Michael Laris October 25 at 10:13 PM


Until a train barreled off the tracks at 9:26 p.m. on May 12, it had been business as usual on Capitol Hill. Among the bills quietly making their way toward a final vote was one that would postpone by several years a multibillion- dollar safety-enhancement deadline facing the railroad industry.

A victory for the railroads, which maintain one of the most powerful lobbying efforts in Washington, seemed all but certain and likely to be little noticed outside of the industry.

But at that moment, an Amtrak train hurtling toward New York City derailed in Philadelphia, turning into a tangle of crushed metal that killed eight passengers and injured 200 more.

Everyone — including the railroad and federal investigators — agreed that the catastrophe could have been prevented by a single innovation called Positive Train Control (PTC). It’s an automatic braking system that federal regulators call “the single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

Now, after a period of reflection and several inquiries, Congress once more is on the brink of postponing the deadline for use of PTC. The proposed delay — until at least 2018 — comes in a new regulatory era for the railroads. Trains filled with volatile natural gas or oil have derailed seven times so far this year, and there is fear that one could cause catastrophic explosions as it passes through a city.

A mighty lobby

What has taken place since May provides insight into the influence that effective lobbyists wield in Washington and how ready access to members of Congress has helped one industry fend off a costly safety mandate.

Seven years ago, Congress ordered railroads to have PTC installed by the end of 2015. It was an uncomfortable deadline for the industry, one it argued should be postponed. PTC technology was too complex, the railroads said, and the $14.7 billion cost to equip freight and commuter lines was prohibitive. Federal economists put the cost-benefit ratio at about 20 to 1.

With their lobbyists in overdrive in 2008, the railroads might have persuaded Congress to delay the mandate. But in the middle of that debate, a head-on train collision in California killed 25 people and injured 102 others. The National Transportation Safety Board said PTC could have prevented the accident, and that moved lawmakers to settle on the Dec. 31, 2015, deadline.

The NTSB says it has investigated 145 rail accidents since 1969 that PTC could have prevented, with a toll of 288 people killed and 6,574 people injured.

In the years since Congress moved to finalize the deadline in 2008, the railroad industry has spent $316 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), to maintain one of the most savvy lobbying teams in Washington. It also contributed more than $24 million during the same period to the reelection efforts of members of Congress, targeting in particular the chairmen and members of key committees that govern its business.

In 2011, the chairman of the House subcommittee on railroads spoke out at a hearing, denouncing the PTC mandate as “an example of regulatory overreach.” He said PTC would have “a very, very small cost-benefit ratio.”

Since then, that chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), has risen to lead the full House Transportation Committee. Late last month, he introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the PTC deadline to at least 2018, and beyond if the “railroads demonstrate they are facing continued difficulties.”

“Railroads must implement this important but complicated safety technology in a responsible manner, and we need to give them the necessary time to do so,” Shuster said in a statement announcing the bill.

Since taking office in 2001, Shuster has received campaign contributions of $446,079 from the railroad industry, according to the CRP, with $141,484 of it coming in the 2013-2014 election cycle.

Money flows readily to the chairs of powerful committees, but other members of the House Transportation Committee also have benefited from railroad contributions. In the 2013-2014 election cycle, committee members received more than $1.25 million in direct contributions to their campaigns. As of the end of September, the railroads had pitched another $721,742 at the House committee members.

The Senate also has benefited from the railroad industry’s largesse, according to the CRP, with 77 senators receiving nearly $1.5 million in campaign contributions in 2013-2014.

Outside the Beltway, massive contributions may sound like the cost to buy a vote in Congress. But in this era of mega-money politics, campaign contributions win something almost as valuable for railroad lobbyists: face time with a member of the House or Senate.

“They call and they get a member meeting right away,” said a senior Senate staff member familiar with the process. “They have a lot of access.”

And that access brings into play what are described as some of the best lobbyists on Capitol Hill, including several dozen who once were staff members or lawmakers in Congress.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee and the recipient of more than $70,000 in railroad campaign money since 2013, says it’s the footwork of the lobbyists, not the campaign contributions, that wins the day.

“In these days, when you have one Wall Street billionaire spend a million bucks [on a campaign], getting a few thousand dollars from a railroad?” he said with a shrug. “The railroads invest a lot of time on the Hill, and they present a pretty good story for the most part.”

Oil boom raises the stakes

Rail safety has never been a more pressing issue than it is today. So far, the people who have died in U.S. accidents that PTC could have prevented have generally been crew members or passengers. That could change in dramatic, catastrophic fashion.

The number of rail tank cars carrying flammable material in the United States has grown from 9,500 seven years ago to 493,126 last year, thanks to the boom in domestic oil produced in the Bakken oil fields.

Those trains rumble from the oil fields in Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada, to refineries on the East, West and Gulf coasts.

This year, seven trains have derailed, either leaking their contents or exploding. All of the U.S. explosions have come in remote rural areas where the erupting fireballs did little damage.

Canada was not so lucky.

In July 2013, a runaway freight train carrying 74 tank cars full of Bakken oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic, setting off an inferno that destroyed 30 downtown buildings and killed 47 people.

Coastal states in the United States and the city of Chicago, the most important railroad hub in the nation, have come up with scenarios that depict the potential damage and death tolls should a train explode in different sections of their urban areas. Chicago, fearing that the plan’s release could cause panic, has declined to make it public.

Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration, says that worries of a train exploding in the middle of a city have caused her sleepless nights.

“If PTC is not fully implemented by Jan. 1, 2016, we can and should expect there to be accidents in the months and years to follow that PTC could have prevented,” she told the House subcommittee on railroads in June.

Bob Gildersleeve Sr., whose son Bob, a Maryland father of two, was killed in the May crash, said rail companies seem to be evading the mandate with an attitude of: “What are you going to do about it?”

“Is a deadline a deadline?” Gildersleeve asked. “We’re talking about fixing things that will eventually save lives, and you guys haven’t done it. Why?”

Many railroads far behind

The railroads’ pitch for an extension — both loudly in the media and quietly to Congress — has been straightforward. Unless the deadline is postponed:

“Transportation of all goods over freight rail grinds to a halt; the U.S. economy loses $30 billion; household incomes drop by $17 billion; 700,000 Americans lose their jobs; millions of commuters are stranded.”

That was the message Oct. 19 when officials from three commuter rail lines and Association of American Railroads President Ed Hamberger held a conference call with reporters to add their voices to a chorus calling for an extension of the PTC deadline.

“If the congressionally mandated deadline of Dec. 31 is not extended, there will be a transportation crisis in the country with severe economic consequences,” said Michael Melaniphy, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

The call had an unintended subtext; all three of the commuter rail lines represented — Virginia Railway Express, Chicago’s Metra system and California’s San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission — said their installation of PTC would be substantially complete by the end of 2015. Amtrak also promises to have PTC operating in the Northeast Corridor rails that it owns by the current deadline.

But most passenger trains operate on track that’s owned by the freight railroads, and the freight rail lines are far from ready to meet the deadline. The freight companies say that without an extension, all traffic on their lines must halt to comply with the law.

The railroads say they’ve already spent $5.7 billion on PTC installation and are committed to finishing the job. None will meet the Dec. 31 deadline.

“It doesn’t matter how fast the bear is that’s chasing you, if you’re running as fast as you can, you can’t run any faster,” said Frank Lonegro, vice president of the freight rail carrier CSX, which operates more than 21,000 miles of rail in 23 eastern states, Washington and two Canadian provinces.

Some of the big railroads have made progress, while others lag far behind.

One of the largest, the BNSF Railway, has made substantial progress. At the other end of the spectrum, Union Pacific hasn’t fully equipped any of its 6,532 locomotives, according to a Federal Railroad Administration report released in August.

“Union Pacific is pretending [the deadline] is not happening,” said one federal official who reviewed the report.

Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt says that “integrating these technologies into an interoperable system is very difficult,” much like merging medical records into a computerized system, and that the company already has made a $1.7 billion investment, including work on the bulk of its locomotives.

Lonegro’s colleague, CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle, said railroad lobbyists have been telling Congress for years that a 2015 deadline wasn’t realistic.

“In the early conversations, before the law was passed, the industry was identifying 2018 as a reasonable deadline that we thought we could achieve,” he said.

A federal official familiar with those 2008 negotiations offered a different perspective.

“The railroads were in the room, and [Association of American Railroads] and those guys were the ones who said 2015 was doable. They did not embrace the deadline, but they said it was a fair bill,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of involvement in the current negotiations.

“It certainly wasn’t, ‘Oh, we sprung it on the railroads at the last minute,’ as they would like some to believe,” said a staff member who was in the room while the deal was being struck.

When the final regulations were put in place nearly six years ago, federal officials tallied up the expected benefits of having the automatic braking system in place. The cost-benefit analysis put a price tag on crumpled locomotives, train delays, track damage, evacuation costs, the cleanup of hazardous spills and other consequences of the crashes that could be prevented.

Government economists also sought to calculate the human costs in injuries and deaths, using a figure of $6 million for each life that was expected to be saved. Over 20 years, there would be $269 million in savings, they figured, or the equivalent of 45 lives spared. There would be another $200 million in prevented injury costs.

In all, they projected $674 million in safety benefits from the PTC system. It would cost $13.2 billion over 20 years, including maintenance costs, to net those benefits, the economists calculated.

That came out to a cost-benefit ratio of about 20 to 1, a disconnect seized on by railroad executives, lobbyists and lawmakers sympathetic to their needs, such as Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.).

“Now, everybody has tremendous sympathy for those families that lost loved ones in the Amtrak accident, but my goodness, now we’re going to be spending billions to make something that already is one of the safest things in the entire world [safer]?” Duncan, who has received $303,250 in railroad campaign support during a 27-year career in the House, said at a June hearing. “And I’m thinking that we would be better off to spend those billions in many, many other ways — cancer research, and everything else.”

But federal rail officials and some outside experts argue that the technology needed to prevent crashes ultimately can transform the future of railroading. More frequent trains, more efficiently deployed across the country, could move more goods while cutting down on expensive fuel costs, dramatically increasing potential benefits.

Some industry executives have embraced this future, while others have pushed back. In a conference call with Wall Street analysts just 19 days before the Amtrak derailment, Union Pacific’s president and chief executive, Lance M. Fritz, predicted Congress would extend the deadline, adding that his company’s lobbyists were “giving feedback and input into our thoughts to help navigate that process.”

Dan Keating contributed to this report.
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Lawmakers Press Railroad Nominee on Safety Deadline

Repost from the New York Times

Lawmakers Press Railroad Nominee on Safety Deadline

By Ron Nixon, Sept. 17, 2015

An Amtrak train traveling from Penn Station in New York to Penn Station in Newark in August. There is a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to start using positive train control technology, which increases safety. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s nominee to lead the Federal Railroad Administration faced tough questioning by lawmakers on Thursday about the rail industry’s contention that it cannot meet a year-end deadline to install a safety technology meant to keep trains from derailing.

Sarah Feinberg, 37, who was nominated by Mr. Obama in May, has been acting administrator of the agency for about nine months. During that time, there have been several train crashes attributed to excessive speeds, including in May, when an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring 200.

Under questioning by a Senate panel weighing her confirmation, Ms. Feinberg said the railroad administration would enforce the 2008 law that set Dec. 31 of this year as the deadline to have railroads install the technology, known as positive train control.

“On Jan. 1, we will enforce the deadline and the law,” Ms. Feinberg said. She said the agency would work with the rail companies to help them with technical and financial challenges they face in trying to install the safety technology. But she emphasized, “We do not have the authority to extend the deadline.” That authority belongs to Congress.

The deadline to install positive train control, which dominated the questions at the hearing, has become a contentious issue. Some members of Congress have proposed pushing back the deadline. A Senate bill passed in July would extend it to 2018. But many safety advocates say the industry has known of the deadline for years and should be able to install the technology on time.

A report on Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that no railroad would be able to fully install the technology by the end of the year. The investigators recommended that Congress extend the deadline. Many railroad operators say they will refuse to carry crude oil or hazardous chemicals after Jan. 1 if Congress does not do so.

At the hearing, Ms. Feinberg received tough questioning from Democrats and Republicans, who asked if the agency had contingency plans if the railroad industry did not meet the deadline.

“If you know that they aren’t going to be in compliance at the end of the year, what are you going to do?” asked Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri.

Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, said he and other panel members were frustrated by the “lack of a specific proposal concerning an extension.”

Ms. Feinberg was introduced at the hearing by Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, whom she has known since she was a child. Mr. Manchin called Ms. Feinberg “uniquely qualified to lead the agency.”

Ms. Feinberg, a former Facebook executive and White House adviser, has dealt with several high-profile rail accidents during her tenure at the railroad administration. In addition to the Amtrak wreck, a train derailment in Oxnard, Calif., killed the engineer and injured about 30 people, and an oil train derailment in West Virginia caused the evacuation of about 100 people from their homes.

During her tenure, higher domestic oil production has caused a significant increase in the amount of crude oil traveling by rail, setting off concerns about the safety of those shipments through cities and towns.

Before she became acting administrator, Ms. Feinberg’s most relevant transportation experience was the nearly 18 months she spent as chief of staff to Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary. Mr. Foxx, whose department oversees the railroad agency, has said that Ms. Feinberg has his full confidence.

Railroad administrators without transportation experience are not unprecedented. Recent examples include Gilbert E. Carmichael, who led the agency from 1989 to 1993 and was active in Mississippi Republican politics before he became administrator. Likewise, John H. Riley, who led the Federal Railroad Administration from 1983 to 1989, worked as a Senate aide before being appointed to lead the agency by President Ronald Reagan.

During her time as acting administrator, Ms. Feinberg has issued a crude-by-rail rule that imposes significant new safety requirements and has started a partnership with Google to integrate the railroad administration’s grade crossing data into its mapping software, allowing users to receive audio and visual alerts about railroad crossings.

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Senate Republicans pushing 3-year delay for rail safety System

Repost from the New York Times

Senate to Debate 3-Year Delay for Rail Safety System

By Michael D. Shear, July 23, 2015

An Amtrak Acela train in New York bound for Pennsylvania Station. Amtrak has said it will complete installation of an advanced safety system for its trains in the Northeast Corridor by the current December 2015 deadline. Credit David Boe/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Two months after the high-speed derailment of an Amtrak train killed eight people and injured hundreds more in Philadelphia, a Senate transportation bill headed for debate this week calls for a three-year delay of the deadline for installing a rail safety system that experts say would have almost certainly prevented the Pennsylvania accident.

Lawmakers from the Northeast and train safety experts expressed outrage over the provision, which is included in the 1,000-page legislation to finance highway and transit projects for the next three years. Several lawmakers vowed to fight the extension of the deadline to install the safety system, called positive train control, beyond December 2015.

“It should be done immediately. There shouldn’t be an extension,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. “Given the high number of accidents, and given the fact that P.T.C. is really effective, they should stick with 2015.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said he was “deeply disturbed about yet another delay in a potential safety measure” until December 2018 and said the provision in the transportation bill “essentially makes the deadline a mirage.”

In 2008, after decades of delay, lawmakers gave railroad companies, including Amtrak, seven years to complete installation of the safety system, which monitors the speed of trains and automatically slows them down if they approach curves at dangerously high speeds.

The Amtrak train that derailed in Pennsylvania was going 106 miles an hour, more than twice the speed limit, when it careened off the tracks.

Since the accident, Amtrak has said it will meet the existing deadline for installing and activating the safety systems in the busy Northeast Corridor. Craig S. Schulz, a spokesman for the railroad, said Thursday that Amtrak “remains committed” to making good on that promise.

But many railroads across the country still have not installed and activated the necessary equipment and would face federal fines and other mandates if they continued operating past Dec. 31 without it.

The transportation spending measure in the Senate would require railroads to submit plans to the secretary of transportation that include installation of positive train control by the end of 2018.

The willingness to give railroads more time is especially galling to lawmakers from the Northeast, where the Pennsylvania accident highlighted the dangers to millions of riders in the most heavily traveled train corridor in the nation.

Mark V. Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates train accidents, said he was outraged by the provision and blamed railroads’ lobbyists for pressuring lawmakers to include it.

“Obviously, the railroad lobbyists have gotten to Congress,” Mr. Rosenker said. “We just had a horrible accident. People died and people ended up becoming paralyzed when that technology was available to the railroad. I am very disappointed.”

Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, also commented on the timing of the proposal. “The idea that a provision to delay positive train control was slipped into this bill just a short time after the Amtrak 188 derailment is shocking and wrong,” he said. “Delaying P.T.C. is a bad idea, and this provision should be stripped out immediately.”

Officials at the Transportation Department are continuing to insist that railroads meet the current end-of-the-year deadline. And at the White House, the press secretary, Josh Earnest, spoke of concerns “about some of the safety provisions that are included in the bill” and said the administration would take a close look at those provisions.

But pressure is mounting in both parties to pass the transportation bill before the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money for road projects across the country. That could happen this summer if Congress does not approve a new long-term authorization for transportation spending. If the Senate passes its measure, it still must win passage in the House as well.

Several senators said concern about the rail safety provision could become a central part of the debate over the bill in the days ahead. Mr. Blumenthal said he disliked the language extending the deadline for railroads to install positive train control.

But in an interview, he said he might be able to accept a new deadline if Congress agreed to dedicate money from the Highway Trust Fund specifically for installation of the rail safety systems, especially for commuter train systems that are struggling to afford the equipment.

Mr. Blumenthal said he intended to propose amendments that would dedicate $570 million a year for three years to commuter-rail safety improvements. He said it was unclear whether Republicans, who control the Senate, would allow the amendments to be offered. And he said it was not certain how hard the Obama administration was willing to fight for them.

“I’m hoping they will lend the full weight of their authority,” he said. “It would make a difference.”

Backers of the deadline extension say they need it because the equipment is costly and time-consuming to install across thousands of miles of track.

They also say the provision gives the transportation secretary authority to reject railroad improvement plans on a case-by-case basis, which they said could leave some railroads subject to the current 2015 deadline. And they said the bill authorized the Transportation Department to prioritize money for rail safety even though it does not guarantee a specific amount of money to be spent from the trust fund.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, which represents freight and commuter systems, praised the provision, saying in a statement that it “sets a rigorous case-by-case framework with enforceable milestones that guarantees sustained and substantial progress, complete transparency and accountability, and a hard end date for full installation by 2018.”

But advocates of greater safety measures for trains said the railroads had been under orders to upgrade their safety systems for years and should have been able to meet the 2015 deadline, which was set by Congress after a California derailment in 2008 that killed 25 people.

Mr. Rosenker, who was acting chairman of the transportation safety board when the crash happened, said the seven-year deadline set by Congress after that crash should not be extended.

“Seven years, in my judgment, is a long time and an adequate time to do it,” he said. “The technology is out there. Let’s put it in.”

 

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