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Tighter deadline sought for railroad safety upgrades

U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer, left, and Richard Blumenthal

U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer, left, and Richard Blumenthal appear together at Penn Station on Friday, May 15, 2015, to announce a four-point plan for rail safety in the wake of a tragic Amtrak derailment on Tuesday night that killed at least eight passengers and injured more than 200 others. Credit: Craig Ruttle

WASHINGTON -- Legislation backed by New York's senators would give railroads only as many as three more years to install required and critical safety technology, far less than the five to seven years in a competing measure supported by the railway industry.

A 2008 law gave major passenger and freight railroads, as well as many commuter lines, until the end of this year to install what's called positive train control. All agree that most railroads won't meet that deadline, though Amtrak president Joseph Boardman on Thursday vowed his passenger railroad would.

The two bills pushing back the deadline were introduced earlier this year, but the importance of the safety system was underscored by the deadly Amtrak derailment Tuesday in Philadelphia. National Transportation Safety Board officials said the crash could have been prevented by positive train control, which automatically stops or slows a train to avoid accidents.

"Now is the time to make rail safety a top priority in Congress," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) Friday at a Penn Station news conference with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

"Congress should invest in critical rail safety upgrades and provide adequate infrastructure funding, hold railroads' feet to the fire on . . . [positive train control], invest in rail grade crossings and more," Schumer said in introducing a four-point package of bills to fund and improve railways.

But most Republicans and some Democrats take issue with Schumer's approach.

On March 25, the Senate commerce committee approved by voice vote a bill to give railroads a blanket five-year extension, until Dec. 31, 2020, with an additional two one-year extensions possible.

"There is nothing in the legislation that is proposed that says we shouldn't move to positive train control. It's just the reality that we are nowhere close to getting there," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the bill's sponsor, at the committee meeting.

The Association of American Railroads supports the Blunt bill, said Ed Hamburger, the industry group's CEO.

Positive train control is in place on 8,200 miles of the 60,000 miles of track, he said. It will take three years to finish the work and two more years to test and tweak the system.

In response, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on April 16 introduced a bill co-sponsored by Schumer, Blumenthal, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would grant only a six-month blanket extension.

It would require railroads to detail reasons to get additional six-month and two one-year extensions through 2018.

The bill also addresses problems Amtrak and other railroads have had acquiring broadband spectrum for their positive train control systems, and requires commuter rail inspections of tracks and studies of ways to improve safety at highway-rail crossings.

The 28,000-member National Association of Railroad Passengers opposes the Blunt bill's longer extension, but hasn't endorsed any measure, said its spokesman, Sean Jeans-Gail.

But in principle, he said, the group would like to see incentives for railroads to complete installation and demand justifications for prolonging the work of installing the system.

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