Railroads dragging their feet

The Dec. 31, 2018, deadline for America’s passenger railroads to install speed controls is a virtual stone’s throw away, considering the size and complexity of that installation.

However, there continues to be doubt about whether all of the railroads will be able to meet that deadline — actually, an extension of the original installation deadline of Dec. 31, 2015.

The deadline-pushback more than two years ago was in response to at least some railroads having balked at technological and other obstacles tied to the implementation.

Now, based on a Government Accountability Office study released on Feb. 28, it appears that many of the railroads in question have continued to drag their feet on this safeguard capable of preventing accidents and saving lives.

By now, the federal government should be finalizing a plan of action against those passenger-rail entities that are found guilty of intentional defiance, and that action plan also must focus on freight companies that own track on which passenger services such as Amtrak operate.

But because the installation of what is known as positive train control (PTC) is federally mandated, the federal government should beef up its involvement in helping to achieve compliance, beyond the $2.9 billion it has made available for the project.

To date, some railroads haven’t accessed any of the available money, and it must be determined why.

Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation should be at the forefront in pushing for that finding, as well as in helping to judge the validity of the excuses for why some railroads remain so far from compliance.

The GAO study released on Feb. 28 contained the finding that as many as two-thirds of the nation’s 29 commuter railroads weren’t on track to meet the Dec. 31 deadline and that some were unlikely to make enough progress between now and then to merit a two-year extension.

The Federal Railroad Administration has the authority to assess fines of $27,904 per day for railroads found to be in non-compliance — some lawmakers favor that and other strict penalties — but it seems questionable whether the FRA actually will employ that option, considering information emanating from the federal Transportation Department.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a letter to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who favors strict penalties, that her department still was finalizing its enforcement strategy.

What the strategy turns out to be should be publicized long before Dec. 31.

PTC was mandated by Congress after a 2008 commuter rail crash in California killed 25 people. The National Transportation Safety Board has said that two Amtrak fatal crashes during the past three months were the latest of about 150 crashes that claimed more than 300 lives that were preventable by PTC.

Amtrak, which has PTC in place on about 700 miles of track that it owns, so far isn’t backing away from a threat to suspend service on track owned by freight carriers and other entities that doesn’t have PTC, once the coming deadline passes. Presumably that would negatively impact rail passengers emanating from — or traveling to — this region.

But rail passengers everywhere have a right to benefit from available technology capable of making their travel safer.

The next nine-plus months will require intense focus on the PTC issue.