Train mandate threatens ag shipping

2015-10-03T08:15:00Z Train mandate threatens ag shippingBy Mike Steenhoek Illinois Farmer Today
October 03, 2015 8:15 am  • 

Positive Train Control (PTC) is a system of monitoring and controlling train movements in order to promote safety.

Mandated by Congress in 2008, PTC requires a railroad to develop a system that allows remote control and automatic braking of a train in case of a major safety concern. PTC is required to be installed on portions of the rail network in which passengers and/or toxic chemicals or materials are transported. Congress established a deadline of Dec. 31 for PTC installation.

The mandate by Congress to install PTC was in response to a collision of a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train in California in September 2008. The collision resulted in the death of 25 people and injuries to 135 people. It was later determined the accident was the result of the Metrolink engineer texting on his phone while operating the train. 

While railroads have been exploring remote monitoring and control of trains for a number of years, much of the technology required to fulfill the PTC mandate is new and unproven. U.S. railroads have invested billions of dollars to develop PTC, but it has been consistently apparent to observers of the rail industry that the Dec. 31 deadline was not realistic.

Railroads continue to make progress of PTC development and deployment, but an extension of the deadline is being promoted by railroads and most rail customers, including those in agriculture.

Railroads accurately contend that if the deadline is not extended, a significant portion of their networks will not be in compliance with federal law.

If railroads continue to transport passengers and toxic materials over their network without PTC installation, they will be subject to significant fines from the Federal Railroad Administration and legal exposure if an accident occurs. As a result, railroads argue that they will have no other option but to suspend the transport of passengers and toxic materials on their networks.

Farmers and agricultural shippers should be increasingly concerned as the PTC deadline approaches without any resolution.

Once the calendar turns to 2016, will railroads be able to fully accommodate soybeans and grain produced from the 2015 harvest?  If an extension is not provided, there would likely be portions of the rail network that will not be able to transport agricultural products.

Anhydrous ammonia is an example of a toxic material that would not be transported by railroads if a PTC extension is not provided by Congress. Many cooperatives have made or are making plans to receive and distribute fertilizer for the spring of 2016. In order to conduct this planning, cooperatives require a predictable forecast for rail service. The lack of resolution to the PTC debate is creating uncertainty. 

There are a number of significant headwinds currently confronting U.S. agriculture — from low commodity prices to the strengthening of the U.S. dollar to the weakening of the Chinese economy. 

This is certainly not the time to add insult to injury by allowing such a self-imposed problem to materialize. It is clear Congress needs to extend the PTC deadline. Hopefully they can muster the leadership to do so.

Mike Steenhoek is executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, Ankeny, Iowa.

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