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Transportation: Groups Push For Tweaks To Rail Law

by Glenn Hess
January 21, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 3

The Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in the House of Representatives will “focus on strengthening America’s national transportation network to make us more efficient, more competitive, and more prosperous,” says Rep. William Shuster (R-Pa.), the panel’s new chairman.

The committee’s agenda will focus on passing legislation to fund waterways and rail programs. Shuster also says that reauthorization of expiring federal passenger and freight rail safety programs “will be a priority of the committee.”

For chemical manufacturers, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 is a significant concern. The law, which expires at the end of this year, requires freight and commuter railroads to install costly new accident-avoidance systems called positive train control (PTC) on main lines that carry passenger trains or certain hazardous materials by Dec. 31, 2015.

PTC refers to an integrated set of technologies designed to help prevent collisions between trains, avoid derailments caused by excessive speed, and safeguard workers who are engaged in track maintenance. The automated safety systems can remotely slow or even stop a train before certain types of accidents caused by human error occur.

The project is expected to cost railroads more than $13 billion to install and maintain over the next 20 years, according to the Association of American Railroads, which represents major U.S. freight railroads and Amtrak.

But it’s becoming clear that meeting the congressionally mandated 2015 deadline is no longer realistic. A report to Congress from the Federal Railroad Administration last August stated that due to “significant technical and programmatic issues” most railroads will likely not be able to fully implement PTC by the end of 2015.

Consequently, the railroad industry is expected to ask Congress to extend the deadline. But as Congress considers reauthorization of the rail safety law and potential changes to PTC requirements, the chemical industry believes that more work is needed to understand how implementation of these technologies may impact chemical shippers and the economy, says Scott Jensen, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade association.

The new safety technologies must be implemented in a way that protects the ability of chemical producers to ship their products where they are needed, both now and in the future, Jensen says.

“Congress should call for a review of potential impacts on chemical shipments based on the projected availability of PTC-equipped routes and assess any potential consequences for the price and availability of vital chemicals in the marketplace,” he tells C&EN.

When considering these broader economic impacts, Jensen adds, it would also be sensible to explore any alternative technologies that could create a rail system that is as safe, or safer, than one equipped with PTC.


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