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Metra, Amtrak Trains In Danger Of Shut Down Next Year

By Kate Shepherd in News on Sep 11, 2015 9:00PM

Photo Credit: Mark Sliozis

Chicago's Metra trains and Amtrak passenger service could be shut down as we ring in 2016 if Congress doesn't act on a deadline extension for the railways soon.

Two of the nation's biggest railroads, the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway, are threatening to shut down their entire networks rather than a violate a law requiring a very expensive and complex safety system be installed by Dec. 31, according to the Tribune.

Railways intend to install the expensive system, called a positive train control system that includes computers, radios and GPS meant to automatically slow or stop a train before collision or derailment. But it's so pricey and complex that few railroads expect to have it installed by the current deadline, which was set in 2008. It is estimated to cost Metra $350 million and the larger railroads billions of dollars.

Congress could extend the deadline or federal officials could grant the railways temporary waivers.

Trains are vital to transporting people and goods, such as coal and produce, around the country and a shut down would have a devastating impact on the economy. Metra, which averages around 300,000 trips a day, has a contingency plan in place and, along with other railroad operators, has written to U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the head of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, to ask for an extension.

"We have analyzed what train operations could continue if operations are halted, without PTC installed and believe that operations across our entire network will likely be compromised by congestion and effectively shut down," Carl Ice, BNSF's president and CEO, wrote Thune in a letter Wednesday. "BNSF would do whatever is reasonably possible to mitigate this impact, but the consequences for the economy and for our company would be substantial."

The Senate already passed an extension but the House has not taken the issue up yet. Railroad safety is a sensitive topic following the tragic Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia this spring.

"Everyone understands this is a real concern," U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Oak Lawn) told the Tribune. "No one (in Congress) wants to do anything to give the impression we are not concerned about safety."