How Congress and Lobbyists Helped Delay Passenger Train Safety Measures
By ALI ROGINOct 5, 2016, 3:34 PM ET
A deadly rail crash that left one person dead and more than 100 injured in New Jersey last week has led to questions over whether more could have been done to stop such accidents and put a new spotlight on the railroad industry's massive lobbying efforts to delay the implementation of safety measures, namely a computerized system called positive train control, which can intervene in the case of human error -- and other scenarios -- and stop a train.
National Transportation Safety Board vice chair Bella Dinh-Zarr brought up that particular security system the day after the Hoboken crash.
The cause of the Hoboken crash has not been determined, but officials said the train was traveling faster than permitted when it entered the terminal. “The NTSB has been recommending positive train control for 40 years,” Dinh-Zarr told reporters last week, although officials also noted that it’s not yet clear whether PTC or similar technology would have prevented the Hoboken crash.
But the railroad industry, led by privately-owned freight lines, spent millions of dollars to get Congress to delay the deadline for PTC, such that the program may not be fully implemented until 2020 -- five years later than the original schedule. The program was first mandated by Congress in 2008 to be in place by Dec. 31, 2015.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), railroads and their trade groups spent just under $30 million on lobbying in 2015, which was the year they were supposed to have the train safety program fully implemented.
The commuter and freight industries made slightly different arguments during the debate over extending the PTC deadline -– and the freight industry spent much more of its own money on lobbying –- but generally, they were both concerned that the necessary technology was still in its nascent stages, the scope of the project was too big to complete in the necessary time, and, more so for the publicly-funded commuter rail lines, the costs were difficult to meet.
By October 2015, the House and Senate had agreed to extend the deadline to the end of 2018 at the earliest –- with an additional, optional two years available to railroads who meet certain requirements. By the end of that month, President Obama signed the extension, which was part of a short-term infrastructure bill, into law.
WHAT THE RAILROADS HAVE SPENT IN CONGRESS
Between 2008 and 2015, the industry spent $316 million on lobbying efforts and an additional $24 million on getting members of Congress reelected, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The railroads also gave more than $7 million in contributions to individual members for the 2015 - 2016 campaign cycle, according to the CRP.
The top individual beneficiary so far of the 2016 election cycle is Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, with $146,000, according to Federal Election Commission records compiled by the CRP. Coming in at number seven was Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the chairman of the Senate committee dealing with transportation oversight, with $63,800, the data show.
Also on the list is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), now the speaker of the house, with $71,075 and Rep. Peter DeFazio, (D-Ore.), with $56,000 in contributions, both of whom co-sponsored the legislation that included the 2018 deadline, according to McClatchy.
It is likely that a portion of the donations were made after President Obama signed the PTC delay into law in October 2015.
“Nobody’s saying the industry shouldn’t have a seat at the table but often they wield far more influence than is necessary or appropriate,” Joshua Stewart, a spokesman for the government transparency group, the Sunlight Foundation, said.
Shuster and Thune were among the most vocal advocates for blanket delays of PTC until 2018, making the same case as the railways that services would have to be shut down under the original deadline. “I believe, absent Congressional action, we will begin to see the effects of the deadline four to six weeks prior to the December 31st  deadline as railroads begin to cycle traffic off their lines,” Thune said during a 2015 hearing.
A Thune spokesman said his contributions from the railroad industry had no bearing on his support for the deadline extension. Spokespeople for Shuster, DeFazio and Ryan did not respond to requests for comment.
Still, CRP executive director Sheila Krumholz noted that while railroads have a smaller lobbying operation than many other industries, they’re spending money in similar ways. “They spend in a strategic way, in ways that are going to help them promote their legislative agenda,” she said.
The Florida-based freight rail company CSX Transportation spent almost $3 million lobbying members of Congress to push back the 2015 deadline, according to CRP.
One of the company's top executives testified about the challenges of implementation during a 2015 House Transportation subcommittee hearing.
“This technology is very difficult to implement. The scale proposition that we each have is very challenging,” Frank Longero, the vice president of service design, said.
Despite its opposition to the 2015 deadline, CSX has already made substantial progress in implementing PTC. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the company has already trained 94 percent of its employees and acquired the needed radio spectrum that allows trains to transmit information to devices along the track.
Asked why CSX advocated for the 2018 extension, spokesman Rob Doolittle cited the sheer magnitude of track miles -- nearly 10,000 -- across which PTC technology must be updated. “It is a large and complicated deployment,” he said.
While freight rail companies are generally making steady progress in installing the train safety system, many publicly-funded commuter rail lines are struggling to pay for the massive undertaking.
So far, New Jersey Transit, on which the Hoboken train was operating, is one of 14 public rail lines that have posted "0%" progress on a Federal Railroad Agency chart tracking seven key metrics as of June 30 of this year.
It did install needed hardware on 8 out of 440 trains, but in a report noted that the software for the computers is still under development. It has also scheduled a demonstration on a short section of track.
New Jersey Transit has not disputed the government's data.
The day after the Hoboken crash, New Jersey lawmakers and Gov. Chris Christie announced a deal to fund transportation projects by raising the state gas tax for the first time since 1988, although Christie said discussions on the deal began before the crash. It’s not yet clear exactly how much of the new fund would go to railroad maintenance and improvement.
Congress has appropriated about $300 million to help commuter rail lines install PTC, Shuster aides say, but the American Public Transportation Association, which represents the commuter lines, says the industry’s total cost will be about $3.5 billion.
“Our commuter rail properties and the diverse operating environments they’re in – from the extremely strained Long Island Rail Road/Metro North to Nashville – they’re all operating on very limited budgets and they are responding in kind to a federal mandate on installation of PTC,” said Bill Terry, APTA’s senior legislative representative.
“They are doing the best they can with what they’ve got,” he added.
Congressional aides assert they’ve done enough to provide loans for public commuter systems, and say it’s up to them to find other ways to make up the difference, like raising ticket sales or increasing taxpayer contributions.
Ed Greenberg, of the Association of American Railroads, which represents the freight industry, said it had been "warning Congress for years that the 2015 deadline was impossible to meet, given the complex task of developing, installing and testing this technology.
"Still, the industry has been working to get this revolutionary technology fully implemented as quickly as possible, once again, spending more than $6.5 billion of private money on getting PTC fully installed, and will be spending another $4-to-5 billion on meeting the current deadline as mandated by Congress last year,” Greenberg added, noting that in total, the freight rail industry anticipates a price tag of over $10.6 billion.
With 2018 (and two-year optional extension) officially on the books, both the commuter and freight rail industries insist they’ll be on track to honor the Congressionally-mandated deadlines.
But the FRA is still urging railroads to beat Congress’ deadline if they can. In an August report, the agency noted that a total of 25 accidents -- 15 freight and 10 passenger -- occurred between 2001 and 2008, resulting in 34 deaths and 600 injuries.
"According to the NTSB, all of the accidents were PTC preventable," the FRA said in the report.
The FRA also warned that since 2008 – when Congress first started down the road of requiring the train safety system – preventable accidents are still happening.
“On June 28, 2016, two BNSF freight trains collided head-on in Panhandle, Texas,” the FRA wrote regarding one of the cases.
“Three crew members were killed.”