June 21, 2018

Democrats Warn FRA Against Issuing PTC Exemptions

June 21, 2018

The Honorable Ron Batory


Federal Railroad Administration

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Ave, SE

Washington, DC 20590

Dear Administrator Batory:

We understand that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently approved a request from the Nashville Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and the Nashville & Eastern Railroad Corporation (NERC) for a permanent exemption from the congressional mandate to implement positive train control (PTC). RTA operates a commuter railroad called the Music City Star on 32 miles of right-of-way owned by the NERC, a short line railroad, between Nashville, Tennessee, and Lebanon, Tennessee. The Music City Star transports 3,520 passengers weekly or 183,040 passengers annually.

Although the Music City Star is one of the smallest commuter rail operations in the United States, the size of a railroad does not negate the potential for an accident. According to the FRA’s safety database, human factors remains the leading cause of all accidents involving commuter railroads. PTC is designed to address accidents attributable to human factors. While RTA has committed to implement PTC if it expands its commuter rail service, any exemption from PTC raises serious safety concerns.

As you are aware, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that the railroads implement PTC for nearly 50 years. Since 1969, the NTSB has investigated 153 PTC-preventable accidents that resulted in approximately 300 fatalities and 7,000 injuries.[1] In 2008, after years of delay by the FRA and the railroads, Congress mandated implementation of PTC in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) (P.L. 110-432). Nonetheless, the NTSB has already investigated two accidents involving operations under PTC exemptions issued by FRA.

RSIA required that all PTC systems be designed to automatically prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position. The RTA-NERC commuter rail and freight network, as described in their Request for Amendment, Revision 9, dated November 29, 2017, even with temporal separation of freight and commuter rail traffic, does not provide a level of safety that is equivalent to or greater than the level of safety achieved through implementation of PTC. See Section 3 and Table 3 of the Request for Amendment.

Exemptions to the PTC mandate were not authorized in RSIA. They were adopted in the FRA’s implementing regulations. See Section 236.1019 of title 49, Code of Federal Regulations. Under those regulations, intercity passenger, commuter, and freight railroads can obtain passenger terminal exemptions and three types of limited operations exemptions from the PTC requirement for ANY segment of track as long as the railroads meet certain conditions. For example, intercity passenger and commuter railroads can obtain exemptions from the PTC requirement if they operate 12 or less trains daily in signaled territory or four or less trains daily in unsignaled or “dark” territory.

For your reference, we have attached a list of all of the main line track exemptions that FRA has thus far approved. These were provided to the Committee in response to questions for the record we submitted to FRA in follow-up to the February 15, 2018, hearing on “Oversight of Positive Train Control Implementation in the United States.”

We continue to believe the exemptions provided in the regulations are overly broad – enabling intercity passenger, commuter, and freight railroads to avoid PTC implementation simply by reducing service, as the RTA and NERC did. This end-run around the law is contrary to congressional intent in mandating implementation of PTC, the requirements of the 2008 Act, and repeated NTSB recommendations, as they could lead to serious safety consequences for the traveling public. Moreover, we are concerned that the RTA and NERC exemption will serve as a model for other commuter railroads for requests for an exemption on a segment-by-segment basis.

We strongly urge FRA to revise its regulations to tighten PTC exemptions and focus on ways to help railroads comply with the law rather than circumvent it through regulatory carve outs. For example, RTA stated in its request for amendment that “limited funding available” led to RTA’s inability to implement PTC. Congress has authorized and appropriated funding for PTC implementation. Additional funding is anticipated for fiscal year 2019. Prioritizing that funding should have been FRA’s first attempt at helping RTA and NERC implement this lifesaving technology.

In fact, it is our understanding that, in May 2016, RTA applied for $1.2 million in PTC discretionary grants that were appropriated by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016, Division L, Title I (P.L. 114-113), but this application was denied because FRA received more requests for funding than what was made available. RTA applied for that funding a second time in September 2016 from grants guaranteed by the Highway Trust Fund as authorized by section 3028 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (P.L. 114-94), but this application, too, was denied. We therefore request that FRA provide us with a list of all freight, intercity passenger, and commuter railroads that applied for grants or loans for implementation of PTC from December 4, 2015, through July 2, 2018, the deadline for applications under the Notice of Funding Availability for PTC funds provided by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018. Please include the amounts requested by each of those railroads and indicate which applications were approved and denied and the reasons for those denials. We believe this information will better inform Congress of the PTC funding needs of the railroads.

Finally, we request that FRA notify the majority and minority of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations of future requests for exemptions from the PTC requirement before they are approved. FRA should also maintain a list of all PTC exemptions that have been proposed and approved on its website in an easily accessible format to ensure transparency. We note that FRA removed the link to the RTA and NERC docket on its PTC website once the exemption was approved. That link should have been maintained.

We look forward to receiving your response. In the interim, if you have additional questions or need further information, please contact us or the minority staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials at (202) 225-3274.


PETER DeFAZIO                                                     MICHAEL CAPUANO

Ranking Member                                                         Ranking Member

Committee on Transportation and                               Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines,

Infrastructure                                                              and Hazardous Materials



STEVE COHEN                                                        JIM COOPER

            Member of Congress                                                   Member of Congress