Metra: Rail service shutdown possible unless railroads get extension on safety system deadline

Commuters disembark a Metra train recently at Calumet 
Station. If a rail shutdown occurs, commuters would 
be forced to use the Chicago area's already 
congested highways to get to work.
(Photo by Eric Crump/HF Chronicle)

Metra and other railways are considering a shutdown of service at the end of the year if Congress does not extend the deadline for implementing the Positive Train Control system, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday. 

Railroads say they will not be able to meet the deadline for implementing the system, and operating without it could mean large fines and increased liability, according to the Tribune story.

Congress mandated the implementation of PTC  with the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act. The system is intended to prevent derailments, collisions and other problems by overriding human error. The system uses computer, radio and global positioning satellite technologies to monitor the location and speed of trains, according to the Tribune story.

In a statement posted on the Metra website, CEO Don Orseno said Metra and other rail companies have notified Congress that the implementation deadline will not be met and that it might not be possible for railways to provide freight or passenger service in 2016 unless Congress extends the deadline.

"It is with great concern and trepidation that we must begin to prepare contingency plans in the event that the Dec. 31 PTC implementation deadline passes," he said in the statement. "This is not a decision we plan to make without thoughtful consideration of all of our options and the impact this would have on our customers and our employees.

"We are optimistic that an agreement will be reached, but time is now running out."

In a letter to Sen. John Thune, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Metra officials said a shutdown would have severe consequences, probably forcing commuters who make 300,000weekday rail trips to travel by car, adding to the Chicago area's already serious highway congestion.

The cost for Metra's share of implementing PTC is about $400 million, but the railway has a capital improvement budget of about $133 million annually.

"We and the rest of the railroad industry have warned for several years that this deadline can't be met due to a variety of technological, regulatory, operational and financial challenges," Orseno said. 

He said the decision about service in 2016 will be made and customers will be notified before Oct. 31. 

Related story: 

As safety deadline looms, railroads look to Congress to avert shutdown (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 13, 2015)

More information:
Positive Train Control
Metra's letter to Sen. John Thune

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