WASHINGTON D.C. - A U.S. Senator is calling on rail officials to get on track with the implementation of positive train control (PTC) on passenger rail lines.
U.S. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) warned officials during a March 1 U.S. Senate hearing that without rapid placement of the railroad safety technologies on lines servicing the Gulf Coast, long-planned restoration of passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, and later between New Orleans and Orlando, may be delayed.
Wicker was among the group of officials on a Feb. 2016 inspection trip to examine existing infrastructure. The inspection train's route began in New Orleans and stopped in Chipley on its way to Jacksonville.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on PTC implementation followed a series of fatal accidents that the National Transportation Safety Board concluded could have been prevented by PTC technology.
The implementation of PTC has been repeatedly delayed as rail companies and federal regulators continue to design, test, and implement the complex systems.
“I understand that testimony has not been particularly encouraging about our collective ability to have this requirement fulfilled by the end of the year,” Wicker said. “The chairman and ranking member’s statements indicate that, on behalf of the Congress, they’re trying to say that patience is running out.”
According to a press release from Wicker's office, he asked Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson about the feasibility of implementing PTC along the Gulf Coast routes needed to restart passenger rail service that was discontinued after major damage from Hurricane Katrina.
Anderson indicated that efforts are progressing, but that some operators - including CSX - have more work to do.
Anderson stated that well-timed, well-run service between New Orleans and Mobile would likely be successful, but that a primary challenge to implementation has been the failure to enforce existing regulations pertaining to rail traffic preference and incremental cost rights, which help trains arrive on time, and at a reasonable cost to passengers on passenger rail routes that share tracks with freight trains.
“The law is there, but since 1971, but there has never been any effective enforcement over the preference action,” Anderson said. “That’s why the long distance service at Amtrak runs at massive delays.”
Anderson asked Wicker for help with an update to the existing law that would encourage the Surface Transportation Board to enforce the provisions necessary for Amtrak to improve passenger rail service nationwide.
Wicker has championed legislative efforts to restore passenger rail service along the Gulf Coast. In 2015, he led the effort to create and fund the Gulf Coast Working Group which recently provided a report with input from the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, Southern Rail Commission, CSX, and local communities along the proposed route.
The stops from Amtrak's pre-Katrina "Sunset Limited" route — known as the “legacy stops” — will remain the same.
In Florida, those stops are Pensacola, Crestview, Chipley, Madison, Tallahassee, Lake City, and Jacksonville. One additional stop will be implemented in Live Oak at the request of local officials.
In addition to finalizing PTC measures, agreements between Amtrak and host railroad CSX regarding infrastructure needs are still ongoing.
Once those agreements are finalized, the rail service could be up and running in as little as six to 12 months, according to Amtrak Director of Government Affairs Todd Stenniss.
Aaron Martin of Transportation Today and Carol Kent Wyatt contributed to this report.