Northwest agricultural organizations and lawmakers fear major shipping disruptions will result if Congress fails to extend a deadline for railroads to implement new safety technology before the end of October.
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 required railroads to have GPS-based systems, called Positive Train Control, in place by the end of 2015 to automatically prevent train collisions and derailments in the event of operator error.
The Association of American Railroads, however, has a counter on its website ticking off the seconds until the end of October. That’s when the railroads say they’ll have to start moving forward with contingencies for shutting down much of their systems, and economic harm would start to occur in the absence of an extension.
“Railroads just can’t flip a switch at the end of December to suspend operations,” said AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg.
The mandate applies to 60,000 miles of U.S. rail routes either serving commuter trains or on which certain hazardous materials are hauled. But the major railroads have threatened to shut down their entire systems if no extension is granted, irking some extension opponents.
None of the railroads are ready to fully implement PTC, and an American Chemistry Council report estimates in the first quarter of 2016, the U.S. economy would lose $30 billion, plus 700,000 lost jobs, after just a month without an extension.
There are hurdles to a timely resolution, including opposition to an extension by the White House and key Senators, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who believe the railroads have dragged their feet and should be held accountable.
Greenberg emphasized the technology didn’t exist when the bill was first passed, and railroads have already invested $6 billion toward the effort.
“We’re moving as quickly as we can,” Greenberg said.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., introduced H.R. 3651 on Sept. 30 — seeking a three-year extension. Bill cosponsors include Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho; Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.; Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.; and seven California lawmakers, among others.
Terry Whiteside, a transportation analyst who represents Idaho grain organizations, said the House plans to suspend rules on the bill, allowing no amendments and approval by a two-thirds majority, to expedite its passage. The bill would then go to the Senate, where Whiteside fears there may be too little time for bill approval and conference prior to the October recess.
Whiteside anticipates an extension will ultimately be approved, but he fears Congress will “play games right to the end,” and uncertainty about deliveries could lead to market chaos.
Several agricultural organizations, including Idaho Wheat Commission, Idaho Barley Commission, Idaho Grain Producers Association, Oregon Wheat Commission, Washington Association of Wheat Growers, Washington State Potato Commission and American Farm Bureau Federation, signed a letter urging Congress to quickly act on an extension.
“About a third of our wheat gos to market by rail, and the impact would be significant,” said Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobsen.
Matt Harris, with the Washington State Potato Commission, worries about disruptions to fertilizer deliveries, noting 16,000 rail cars haul 80 tons each of anhydrous ammonia for farm use each year.
“For us, it’s a no-brainer,” Harris said.