Wicker: ‘Patience Running Out’ for Passenger Rail Safety Implementation

Positive Train Control Necessary for Gulf Coast Passenger Rail Service

March 1, 2018

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a senior member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, today attended a hearing to examine the implementation of railroad safety technologies known collectively as Positive Train Control (PTC) that has been repeatedly delayed as rail companies and federal regulators continue to design, test, and implement the complex systems.

“I understand that testimony has not been particularly encouraging about our collective ability to have this requirement fulfilled by the end of the year,” Wicker said. “The chairman and ranking member’s statements indicate that, on behalf of the Congress, they’re trying to say that patience is running out.”

Wicker continued, “Clearly, we’re trying not to shut down train traffic around the country at a date certain, but we need whoever to understand that we need to get the attention of those responsible and get a timetable that will work and avoid, I might say, a train wreck coming either figuratively or literally.”

The hearing comes in the wake of recent high profile rail incidents in Cayce, S.C., Crozet, Va., and Dupont, Wash. that the National Transportation Safety Board has indicated could have been prevented had PTC been installed on those tracks. Without rapid PTC implementation on lines servicing the Gulf Coast, long-planned restoration of passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, and later between New Orleans and Orlando, may be delayed.

Wicker asked Mr. Richard Anderson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Amtrak, about the feasibility of implementing PTC along the Gulf Coast routes needed to restart passenger rail service that was discontinued after major damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Anderson indicated that efforts are progressing, but that some operators, including CSX, have more work to do. Anderson stated that well-timed, well-run service between New Orleans and Mobile would likely be successful, but that a primary challenge to implementation has been the failure to enforce existing regulations pertaining to rail traffic preference and incremental cost rights, which help trains arrive on time, and at a reasonable cost to passengers on passenger rail routes that share tracks with freight trains.

“The law is there, but since 1971, but there has never been any effective enforcement over the preference action,” Anderson said. “That’s why the long distance service at Amtrak runs at massive delays.”

Anderson asked Wicker for help with an update to the existing law that would encourage the Surface Transportation Board to enforce the provisions necessary for Amtrak to improve passenger rail service nationwide.

Wicker has championed legislative efforts to restore passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast. In 2015, he led the effort to create and fund the Gulf Coast Working Group which recently provided a report with input from the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, Southern Rail Commission, CSX, and local communities along the proposed route.

In February 2016, Wicker joined a group of officials on an inspection trip to examine existing infrastructure and the opportunities that intercity rail service could provide to the area. The trip, which began in New Orleans, made several stops in Mississippi before continuing on to Florida. Those stops included Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula.