REMARKS / Last week addressed a fine-tuning process on positive train control (PTC). Congress has spoken and the Federal Railroad Administration has issued the final rule. But the exact form is subject to a continuing debate – witness two recent inputs. COMMENTS: Though each would dislike any hint of disharmony, NTSB and Association of American Railroads are likely future rivals to persuade the Federal Railroad Administration – and ultimately the Congress.

Last week’s “Comments” observed that, like rock n’ roll, Positive Train Control is here to stay. But make no mistake: Recent statements of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Chair Deborah Hersman, on one side, and the Association of American Railroads, on the other, reflect starkly conflicting views on the future policy, scope and above all the timing of PTC.    

NTSB Chair Deborah A.P. Hersman in three tweets:

“Hersman: We acknowledge that there are real hurdles to clear – in particular for public operators who do not have the available capital.”

“Hersman: What we need to hear about is not what can’t be done, but what can be done.”

“Hersman: Our work is hard. But it’s harder when our recs go unheeded and we see same accidents over & over and more lives cut short.”

And in a longer quote cited by “Logistics Management” Deborah A.P. Hersman dispensed with any diplomatic niceties:   

“The railroad community should have solved this by now,” she said. “Some of you have been involved in PTC pilots or tests dating back decades. 20 years ago I worked for members of Congress that supported these types of programs. We can do better. It is time to refocus on rail safety and [PTC]. The rails are safer and stronger, but there is still some distance to go. Railroads have so many tremendous growth opportunities and a role to play in our nation’s economy and its future. [Rails] could be carrying more of the load and carrying it more safely and efficiently.”

The AAR counters that the deadline as it stands now (2015) is just not feasible:

Legal take-away:

Note that the debate is not truly between a regulator and the Class I’s, or even the Congress and the Class I’s. Right now it’s the NTSB and Chair Hersman in particular that are making the case for more aggressive PTC implementation.

For the most part, we are not hearing from either the Federal Railroad Administration or the  transportation committees in Congress on the specifics of this debate.

Practical take-away:

How “real” is the 2015 deadline? Watch for two factors:

First, who is Federal Railroad Administration Administrator between now and then?  Would the White House take an interest? It might be that an Administration reputed to take aggressive regulatory stances might not focus on PTC as such. It might be too sector-specific and miss the public visibility test.

Second, what incidents if any take place between now and then? Many connect the Graniteville, S.C. and Minot, N.D. tragedies with subsequent passage of the Federal Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2007.

Another visible tragic accident could easily catapult the PTC issue out of the sector-specific category with corresponding focus on implementing PTC on its present 2015 deadline.