Railroads warn they may have to shut down unless Congress extends an end-of-the-year deadline to install new safety equipment called Positive Train Control.
PTC is a complex system that monitors a train's location and speed, then automatically slows down or stops a locomotive if the engineer doesn't respond to a danger warning.
Congress required passenger and freight railroads to install PTC in 2008, after a Metrolink passenger train collided with a freight train in Los Angeles, killing 25 people. It also would have slowed down the fast-moving Amtrak train that derailed earlier this year in Philadelphia, killing eight.
The 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, for railroads to implement PTC systems — or face big fines. Metrolink is among the few railroads expected to meet the deadline, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Other passenger railroads on track to finish by the end of the year include Caltrain, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, and TriMet in Oregon.
Amtrak expects to have PTC installed by the deadline along the Northeast Corridor — between Washington, D.C., and Boston — and on its line between New York and Harrisburg, Pa.
The mandate is most expensive for freight railroads, which have tens of thousands of miles of track to include in their PTC systems.
"We are committed to getting this job completed," says Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. By the end of 2015, Hamberger says, freight lines will have spent $6 billion on PTC systems and will spend $4 billion more to complete installation.
"It's like having a home halfway built: You want to finish it; you want to move in," he says. But railroads need more time to finish the job, he adds.
As the deadline approaches, railroads plan to shut down instead of paying those fines. "There will be a transportation crisis in this country with severe economic consequences," warns Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of the American Public Transportation Association.
During a recent conference call with reporters, Melaniphy and Hamberger painted a dramatic picture of commuters and trucks clogging the nation's roads because trains won't run. They want lawmakers to extend the deadline for up to five years.
Melaniphy says if there's going to be an extension, it needs to be made before the end of October because railroads need about eight weeks for "an orderly shutdown, including public notification to customers and labor unions."
The Senate already has passed a bill extending the deadline and there are indications House leaders are prepared to do the same.
The situation raises a question: Why are some railroads able to meet the deadline when others aren't? The answer is that while the 2008 law requires the same thing of railroads, each line has different circumstances.
"You cannot purchase PTC systems off the shelf at Best Buy," Melaniphy says.
Some railroads had trouble even securing the radio frequency that allows all the parts of the PTC system to communicate. And then there are inevitable bugs to work out.
SEPTA General Manager Jeffrey Knueppel says several things came together to help his agency meet the deadline. He says SEPTA is spending $328 million on its system.
Until recently, that would have been the bulk of the agency's capital budget. But two years ago, Pennsylvania raised gas taxes to boost funding for transportation infrastructure. That helped alleviate the cost problem for SEPTA.
"We had a good set of circumstances, a good plan, a good contractor and we retained our people," says Knueppel, referring to the fact that as railroads are working now to meet the PTC deadline, a generation of experienced workers across the industry is reaching retirement age.
Knueppel says he's not surprised that an extension is needed. Even with good planning, funding and some luck, he says meeting the end-of-the-year deadline will be a photo finish for SEPTA.