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Could VRE and MARC service shut down at the end of the year?

Virginia Railway Express CEO Doug Allen warned lawmakers that service could be shut down on Jan. 2, if Congress does not extend the deadline to install positive train control. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON — Virginia Railway Express CEO Doug Allen warned lawmakers that service could shut down next Jan. 2 if Congress does not extend the deadline to install positive train control.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 required all railroad companies to install positive train control before the end of 2015.

“Railroads have been working very, very diligently on this,” Allen told the Transportation Planning Board. “It’s a very complex system.  They’ve spent over $5 billion on it, but it just isn’t going to be ready by the end of this year.”

Allen says VRE will complete its job — installing parts into the trains — but Norfolk Southern and CSX will not complete their track improvements until 2016.  Norfolk Southern owns the tracks on the Manassas line; CSX, the tracks on the Fredericksburg line.

Erich Kolig, of the Maryland Transit Administration, told lawmakers that MARC trains will also be equipped with parts before the end of the year, but testing and implementing positive train control will not take place until 2016.

Amtrak owns the tracks on the Penn Line; CSX, the tracks on the Camden and Brunswick lines.

Allen called on Congress to pass at least a one-year extension, although other railroad operators want a three-year extension.

“If Congress doesn’t extend the deadline, it’s likely that we won’t be able to operate after the first of the year,” Allen says.

But speaking afterward with reporters, Allen took a step back from the issue.

“I want to be clear; we have not made a decision yet,” he said. “We will make it in probably November. We hope an extension comes forward so that we don’t have to get to that point.  It would be very detrimental to our riders if this were to happen.”

Positive train control (PTC) is a complex system that works a lot like adaptive cruise control and collision prevention systems on modern cars. If a train is speeding around a curve, the positive train control system would automatically stop the train to prevent it from derailing.  Some say such a system would have prevented the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia earlier this year.

If a train senses another train in front of it, it would either slow down, or stop, to prevent a collision.

Robert Giorgio, the emergency operations manager at Amtrak, says it will have positive train control before the deadline in the northeast corridor.  However, it is also asking Congress for an extension because it won’t be ready in other parts of the country.

CSX did not attend the briefing on Wednesday, but sent written testimony delivered to Congress in June.

“Despite setbacks, railroads’ aggressive implementation of PTC will continue,” the statement read. “However, it is simply not possible to complete a nationwide, interoperable PTC system by the end of 2015. …

“Rushing PTC development and installation and foregoing a logical plan for sequencing its implementation would sharply increase the likelihood that the system would not work as it should, and potentially lead to degradation in safety and efficiency, which is an outcome that serves no one’s purpose,” it concludes.

The American Railroad Association and the American Public Transportation Association are also calling on Congress to extend the deadline.

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