Congress should be active in upholding safety standards

Opinions Column: Oh, the Places You'll Go


Unbeknownst to many, students, commuters and others who ride trains in New Jersey, the state faced a looming disaster late last year. In October, an NJ Transit spokesperson warned that without an extension of a federal train safety deadline, the agency would no longer be able to run trains. This would be paralyzing. In 2014, New Jersey residents made 85 million train trips, with an average daily ridership of 295,173. NJ Transit wasn’t alone, either. MTA President Thomas Prendergast warned that it would have to shut down Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, and PATH general manager Michael Marino noted that PATH trains would face the same scenario. A shutdown would mean an unprecedented economic collapse across the region. Fortunately, however, Congress passed the Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, extending the deadline to the end of 2018 at the earliest. New Jersey trains will continue to run for the time being.

Like many, I was relieved that I could still commute. But I’m also worried. The deadline Congress imposed may have been harsh, but it wasn’t without reason. Passed in the aftermath of the deadly Chatsworth train collision in 2008, the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) mandated that the nation’s railways implement a safety technology called Positive Train Control. PTC creates a communication network between trains, track signal and dispatchers, and ensures that a train exceeding the local speed limit will be slowed down. It’s designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, speeding, train collisions with workers and train-to-vehicle collisions. It may sound mundane, but it’s critical: Without PTC in place, engineers work without a safety net.

Any human error can be fatal. Last May, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional No. 188 crashed after entering a curve at 100 miles per hour, more than twice the posted speed limit. If the track had been using PTC, it could have been avoided. Robert Sumwalt, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, made it clear: “Had such a system been installed on this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.” Eight people were killed and 200 were injured.

Why, then, hasn’t PTC been implemented? As is often the case, politics are to blame. When RSIA was passed in 2008, it gave the railroad industry an unfunded mandate — that is, a requirement to take action without funding for that action. The rail industry expected a long-term reauthorization bill that would extend capital funding through Federal Transit Administration grants, but the majority of funding is short-term. Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association, said in a 2013 statement, “It is estimated that the cost of full implementation of PTC will be at least $2.75 billion. To date, Congress has only appropriated $50 million for PTC for this critical safety program.” Without a long-term bill, railroads are less capable of making plans for the future. Additionally, in 2008, much of the technology didn’t exist, and rail networks had to develop the system from scratch during a severe economic downturn, without substantial federal funding.

To an extent, train accidents are an anomaly. In 2013, there were more than 5 million police-reported car crashes. In the same year, there were less than 2,000 train accidents. This is why preventable crashes can have such disastrous consequences: If people drive instead of taking public transit or if railroads have to suspend operations, people switch to more dangerous forms of transportation, then more people will be killed in accidents. By refusing to act in these circumstances, Congress is allowing people to die.

What, then, is New Jersey to do? Unfortunately, its options are limited. Much of the track that NJ Transit operates on is owned by Amtrak, including the Northeast Corridor line that Rutgers students take between Trenton and New York, restricting NJ Transit’s ability to make modifications. If PTC is to be implemented, funding needs to come from the federal government. This has, to an extent, already started. In May, the Federal Railroad Administration approved a loan of $967.1 million to the MTA to finance PTC implementation on Metro-North and LIRR trains. Amtrak and NJ Transit need the same support.

But as much as I’d like to be, I’m not optimistic. The day after the Amtrak crash, the House voted to slash Amtrak’s budget. And while the Obama Administration’s 2016 transportation budget includes $3 billion over six years to support PTC implementation across the nation, there may still be funding shortages. The FRA noted in 2012 that the nation’s railroads have a backlog of unfunded projects that total $78 billion, and it worries that any diversion of funds into PTC could create greater systemic safety issues. PTC is unfunded and overdue — but so is everything.

These safety problems aren’t acts of God or forces of nature. They are the product of choices that our leaders make. How many more people need to die before Congress realizes the right choice?

Nick Hansen is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science with a minor in history. His column, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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