With next to no time to spare, Congress this week advanced legislation intended to give the rail transport industry three, and maybe as many as five, much-needed years to complete work on a program intended to make trains safer and reduce accidents. Without this extension, there was a serious risk that most U.S. railroads would have come to a grinding halt year’s end – by or before midnight on December 31, to be precise.
A New York Times Op-Ed piece on Wednesday, jointly submitted by the chairman and chief executive of Dow Chemical Company and the executive chairman of BNSF Railway, described the problem in some detail. The crux of the problem, which could have halted delivery of “most of our food” to wholesalers’ and retailers’ warehouses, “the chlorine that makes the drinking water of 98% of all Americans safe to drink,” and – among other things – a very significant share of all manufactured goods, is that back in 2008 Congress set a too-tight deadline for most railroads to install “positive train control” (P.T.C.) equipment. The Times article noted that as well as insufficient-time complaints by railroads, even the Government Accountability Office acknowledged recently that progress on installation of the new safety equipment has lagged so far behind that, without the Congressional extension, the economy could have taken a $30 billion hit in January alone.
Indirectly, we owe passage of this extension – and of a comprehensive budget bill that avoids assorted other serious impacts on the running of the country and on the economy – to the Republican rebels who have voted against virtually every common-sense legislative proposal that’s come before them over the past couple of years.
Had they not been so successful at disrupting the nation’s governing affairs, now-former House Speaker John Boehner wouldn’t have been forced by them to resign. Had he remained speaker, he wouldn’t have felt as compelled to ‘clean out the barn’, as he put it, of legislative leftovers before his departure, which took place Thursday. (He was replaced by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, he only agreed to stand for the position if he received the backing of the several warring factors within the Republican party.)
Questions remain, though, if even three years will be enough time – given both the cost and the effort required – to get all needed P.T.C. equipment in place.
Essentially, what done by that equipment, said by the Times piece to represent “the most significant technological innovation in railroading since the diesel engine replaced the steam engine,” is to integrate and process “extremely precise data from tracks” and the engine in a way that “allows advanced hardware to [quickly and safely] stop a 100-car freight train that is [more than] one mile long, weighs 6,000 tons and travels at 55 miles an hour – in any given location and weather.”
Already, an Association of American Railroads spokesman told The Washington Post, the rail industry has spent “nearly $6 billion” to getting the P.T.C. equipment in place. And though “much progress” has been made, according that spokesman, there’s still a lot that needs to be done.