Required railroad safety measures could have a big impact on tourism in Washington.
With a deadline to install Positive Train Control (PTC) coming at the end of 2015, Amtrak, MoDOT, city and state transportation officials are concerned with the fate of the rails.
PTC is a technology that would slow or stop a train if, for whatever reason, a human conductor did not and conditions would otherwise be hazardous.
While Congress passed a mandate that passenger rails install the technology in 2008, a May 12 Amtrak Northeast Regional train derailment in Philadelphia brought PTC to the front line.
In that wreck, eight people were killed and 11 injured critically after the train derailed traveling at more than 100 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone.
Installation is estimated to cost Amtrak $12 million and the state an additional $18 million. Missouri has allocated $8.2 million this year for Amtrak.
Mark Wessels, a member of the city transportation committee, also noted that the House passed a budget measure that’s going to cut Amtrak’s budget by $242 million, but did allow $9 million for the installation of cameras in trains.
“The government subsidizes Amtrak to the tune of $1.3 billion, so $242 million is a pretty serious cut,” Wessels said.
Wessels also represents the Chamber at the Missouri Rail Passenger Advisory Committee.
Worse Case Scenario
“The worse case scenario is the Missouri River Runner (route) gets shut down as a result of not meeting compliance,” Wessels said.
The Missouri River Runner comes through Washington.
For the past several years, there have been about 14,000 on/offs in Washington. Statewide, more than 737,000 people traveled on Amtrak last year.
“A lot of people take the train to visit Washington. This would hurt tourism,” Wessels said.
Additionally, it would take away a “convenient” method of transportation for travelers.
Wessels said many college students take the train back and forth to Warrensburg, to the University of Central Missouri.
“I’m a believer that rails can do it cheaper than cars and trucks,” Wessels said. “It puts more people in cars on highways,” if they can’t go by rail.
Two Routes in Jeopardy
Amtrak has said that the fate of two routes, the Southwest Chief and the Missouri River Runner are in jeopardy.
At a hearing last week, Amtrak’s vice president of operations testified that they would be unable to afford installing Positive Train Control on sections of the track through Kansas City and St. Louis.
“Under these circumstances, they’d likely have to cancel the two services,” an email from the Midwest High Speed Rail Association said.
Wessels said “not many” are going to be able to make the deadline.
“The next step should be clear,” The Midwest High Speed Rail Association said. “Congress, which is charged with ensuring a safe, efficient transportation system, needs to invest in PTC for Amtrak and commuter railroads.”
The association also said the investment is a “no brainer” if we want to enjoy modern transportation.
“The only reason we’re having this conversation is because of Congress’ consistent failure to adequately fund our nation’s widely used, and growing passenger rail network,” the association said.
The Missouri Rail Passenger Advisory Committee will host its quarterly meeting in July, where Wessels said he expects PTC to be a big topic.
“I think there is going to have to be an extension,” he said, adding that it will have to be worked out how much each entity is responsible for.
U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt are pushing for an extension, but so far no extension has been approved.