Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Burlington Northern Railroad Warns It Will Shut Down December 31 (BRK)

From Trains:

BNSF: We will shut down
In a candid letter to a U.S. senator, BNSF Railway’s chief executive, Carl Ice, said September 9 that BNSF would in effect shut down most of its network rather than violate a federal law mandating that positive train control be operational by December 31. CSX Transportation has said it, too, questions whether it should violate federal laws, and other Class I carriers are likely to follow suit. This set up the real possibility of a national transportation crisis at the beginning of 2016. The public may be unaware of how closely the U.S. economy is tied to railroads, but the reality is that without railroads, this country will quickly cease to function normally. Imagine, for instance, no electricity to heat homes.

In his letter to Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Ice says that the railroad has already spent $1.5 billion to deploy PTC and will likely spend another $500 million. Ultimately, this new technology will be deployed on half of BNSF’s network, the portion that handles 80 percent of its traffic.

But portions of both transcontinental routes will not be operational by the December 31 deadline set by Congress in 2008. Nor will commuter zones in Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis. Ice says that to avoid operating on PTC-mandated subdivisions where PTC will not be installed before the deadline would force traffic on secondary routes unequipped to handle it and lead to a paralysis of the railroad.

Ice goes on to explain the railroad’s position. First, BNSF reads the law as saying no train can legally operate on a PTC-mandated line if PTC is not in service by December 31, rather than no train carrying hazardous substances. Then he goes on to say: “BNSF, as a matter of law, corporate policy and principle, does not willfully violate safety statues or regulations or ask our employees to do so. The announced enforcement policy by the [Federal Railroad Administration] of imposing fines for non-performance puts BNSF in a position that will be difficult to reconcile with our aforementioned unwillingness to willfully violate safety laws or regulations. BNSF does not believe that it can pick and choose which safety rules must be followed.” Ice adds that were his railroad to operate over lines where PTC is not in place and an accident occurs, the exposure to legal claims and punitive damages would be significant.

Ice is careful in his letter not to say BNSF will refuse to run trains in violation of the law, only that it doesn’t see how it can. But any reasonable interpretation of his language is that the railroad will either coagulate to paralysis or operate at a fraction of its capacity.

The Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, in effect came to the aid of BNSF and other railroads this past week. Its chairman, Daniel Elliott, wrote to Thune to say that railroads can “lawfully suspend service for various reasons, including safety.” In other words, Elliott is saying that the common carrier obligation of railroads is not absolute. Elliott added that CSX has expressed sentiments similar to those of BNSF....MORE
HT: Cold Spring Shops

Here's the Federal Railroad Administration on PTC and here's the Association of American Railroads.