Union Pacific signals it will not make 2018 federal deadline to fully operate key crash-prevention system

Union Pacific Railroad, the largest freight carrier in California and the West, revealed this week that it will not meet this year’s deadline to have a federally mandated crash-prevention system fully up and running.

A company spokesman said the railroad is on track to have the necessary safety equipment installed this year. However, UP officials indicated in a statement published Wednesday that the company will continue to test the system on its lines in 2019 and 2020 before making it fully operational.

Such a move will require special federal permission. UP appears to be the first major railroad to indicate it will not hit the Dec. 31, 2018, deadline for full operation.

The announcement comes weeks after several major train crashes nationally have thrown the spotlight on rail industry safety lapses, and prompted more calls for railroads to speed up work on installing computer systems – called Positive Train Control – that will stop trains if the conductor fails to heed speed limit warnings.

In December, three people were killed and dozens injured when an Amtrak train in Washington sped at twice the speed limit through a turn and derailed onto Interstate 5. On Sunday, an Amtrak train ran head-on into a freight train in South Carolina, killing two and injuring 100.

Those incidents have caused some in Congress to complain the railroads should have PTC systems up and running by now, and to say they fear heel-dragging by the industry.

The federal government first mandated in its Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 that all major railroads, including passenger and freight lines, install the system by the end of 2015.

Industry representatives persuaded officials to extend the deadline to 2018, and to add a provision that will allow railroads a further extension to 2020 for full installation, testing and service startup.

In an announcement Wednesday, UP said it “continues to make strides implementing positive train control. The company anticipates it will make all required deadlines for installing PTC on its network. As allowed by federal law, Union Pacific will continue to test and refine the immature technologies comprising the system in 2019-20.”

According to federal PTC guidelines, however, railroads are to implement PTC systems by Dec. 31, 2018. If not, the FRA says a railroad “may request FRA’s approval an an ‘alternative schedule” with a deadline no later than Dec. 31, 2020, for certain non-hardware, operations aspects of PTC system implementation.”

UP officials said on Thursday they have not yet made such a request. An FRA spokesman said his agency has not received any extension requests from railroads yet.

A chart on the FRA website shows that UP does not yet qualify to be able to request the extension. That chart lists UP as having completed 86 percent of the work it will need in order to be allowed to request the extension.

UP is one of 41 railroads nationally that are required to install the computerized safety system. Two other large railroads that operate in California, the BNSF and Amtrak, are listed as having made more progress than UP.

UP and other major railroads have argued in the past that the PTC system is expensive – estimated at $10 billion nationally – as well as complex and difficult to install. It requires new computer systems in all locomotive cabs, new communications systems at intervals along all rail tracks, and extensive back office systems that can communicate with the locomotives and with the new track-side installations.

The system is further complicated by the fact that freight and passenger rail companies use many of the same tracks, requiring them to work together to ensure their systems can communicate with each other.

UP officials this week pointed out that their rail system has the largest footprint in North America. The company’s chief executive, Lance Fritz, said last month that UP has run into trouble testing PTC in areas where it has been installed.

In an email this week to The Bee, UP officials said trains “are experiencing unintended stops” during PTC tests. “These unintended stops have an adverse impact on our system. On occasion, the communities we serve experience impacts to vehicular traffic ... We are diligently working to reduce unintended stop situations to eventually eliminate these occurrences.”

Those complaints have caused some critics to worry more railroads may push for extensions beyond this year.

Ron Goldman, a Los Angeles attorney and critic of railroad safety efforts, recently said he worries that railroads will persuade the Trump administration, which has been deregulating industries, to push the deadlines back more.

“This is a bad habit, like Groundhog Day,” he said. “What do train crashes have in common? Speed and derailments. It repeats over and over.”

Last month Trump’s Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao sent a letter to railroads, giving them a nudge to work harder on installing the system by December of this year.

“Advancing the implementation of Positive Train Control is among the most important rail safety initiatives on the Department’s agenda,” she said. “The FRA leadership has been directed to work with your organization’s leadership to help create an increased level of urgency to underscore the imperative of meeting existing expectations for rolling out this critical rail-safety technology.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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