The National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), in a joint letter signed by 48 national and state agricultural organizations, today urged the U.S. House of Representatives to take action to avert the potential for a major, looming disruption to the U.S. rail system.

In a letter to all members of the House, the NGFA and other agricultural producer, commodity and agribusiness organizations encouraged Congress to enact legislation that would extend the current Dec. 31, 2015, deadline by which Class I rail carriers are to develop, test and implement Positive Train Control (PTC) safety technology on their rail networks.

Implementation of PTC was mandated by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, and in the Federal Railroad Administration's regulations implementing the statute. However, as noted in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study issued in September, the deadline will not be met by any of the Class I carriers, each of which has reported major challenges in installing and implementing this new technology - some of which is the result of delays in receiving approval of safety plans from government regulators and in obtaining radio spectrum and Federal Communications Commission permits for the required communications infrastructure.

"To prevent this looming potential disruption in U.S. freight rail service, the undersigned organizations respectfully request that you support prompt enactment of legislation extending the PTC implementation deadline," the letter states.

The agricultural organizations signing the letter, whose members produce, handle, market and ship the vast majority of America's agricultural commodities and products, support the bipartisan approach taken in H.R. 3651, introduced by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and Ranking Member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that would extend the PTC implementation deadline to Dec. 31, 2018.

Failure to extend the current deadline for installation and implementation of PTC technology could result in severe service disruptions and inefficiencies in moving a projected near-record harvest during the peak fall shipping season, reminiscent of what U.S. agriculture experienced in the fall and winter of 2013-14, the letter states.

The agricultural groups cited a Sept. 9, 2015 letter from BNSF Railway Co. President and CEO Carl Ice to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., in which Ice stated that the PTC "deadline will impact all freight service, as opposed to only TIH-PIH [toxic-by-inhalation and poisonous-by-inhalation materials] and passenger trains, on the lines where PTC is not fully installed and implemented...." In addition, CSX Corp. Chairman Michael Ward wrote with respect to rail lines near several major metropolitan areas that "due to the comingling of CSX freight trains with passenger trains, CSX is seriously considering suspending freight operations over these lines."

The letter noted that the agricultural organizations have "serious doubts" that applicable legal standards governing railroads statutory common carrier obligation would permit an individual railroad to cease all transportation of freight simply because it did not meet the Dec. 31 deadline to install PTC on its rail network. 

"Nonetheless, the statements of these two Class I railroad officials illustrate the potential adverse implications for a broad range of agricultural commodity and product shipments, as well as for other types of non-agricultural shipments, that could result if Congress does not take action in a timely manner," the letter states, adding that the House legislation ensures implementation will occur "in as expeditious a manner as possible to enhance rail safety" while still taking into account "real-world" technological and implementation constraints.