September 30, 2015 / 2:32 PM / 3 years ago

House introduces legislation to extend rail safety deadline to 2018

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers, under pressure from the railroad industry, announced bipartisan legislation on Wednesday to extend a year-end deadline for costly new safety technology for at least another three years.

An Amtrak train attendant walks across the tracks at the Holdrege station after exiting the 5 California Zephyr Amtrak train in Holdrege, Nebraska June 13, 2008. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

The bill, introduced by lawmakers on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, could avert a threatened service suspension by major railroads that cannot meet the current Dec. 31 deadline, which Congress imposed in 2008, for implementing positive train control (PTC) technology.

PTC is a complex communications system that can automatically slow or stop a train to avoid derailments and major crashes. Federal safety officials say it would have prevented the May 12 derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.

But railroads, including freight and passenger services, say implementation efforts have been snarled by high costs, bureaucratic delays and technical hurdles.

The proposed legislation would extend this year’s deadline to Dec. 31, 2018, and allow the U.S. Department of Transportation to grant further extensions of up two additional years on a case-by-case basis. An extension has strong backing from both Republicans and Democrats, suggesting the bill could pass easily.

“Extending the deadline is essential to preventing significant disruptions of both passenger and freight rail service,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican.

U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the House panel’s leading Democrat, said the PTC extension was necessary but expressed disappointment that the change would not be part of a larger bill that could have included other rail safety enhancements.

There was no immediate word on when the House might vote on the new legislation.

In the Senate, Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, welcomed the House bill and said he was “committed to securing enactment of an extension that meets the needs of railroad passengers, railroads and freight customers.”

Railroads have been pressing lawmakers to act on an extension by the end of October, saying they could be forced to suspend service or face liabilities for operating outside the law after Jan. 1. A suspension would require rail operators to notify customers well before the current Dec. 31 deadline.

“We look forward to working with both the House and Senate bipartisan leadership to quickly get the PTC extension across the finish line,” said Edward Hamberger, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, an industry lobbying group.

Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Lisa Von Ahn and G Crosse

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