A dispute over who should bear the cost of installing a congressionally mandated train collision avoidance system could result in the suspension of Amtrak service to Missouri’s two largest cities by the end of the year.
Amtrak operates over two smaller freight railroads in Kansas City and St. Louis to reach the cities’ Union Stations. Amtrak and Missouri and the two railroads are at odds over who will pay the $32 million cost of installing the system in Kansas City and the $700,000 cost in St. Louis, and future maintenance expenses.
The system was required on all passenger train routes by Congress in 2008 after a deadly commuter rail accident in Southern California. After Dec. 31 of this year, Amtrak cannot operate on tracks that do not have the system, called Positive Train Control, unless Congress adjusts the deadline. The control technology systems are designed to avoid train collisions, derailments and other calamities, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The disagreement has the potential to disrupt rail travel across the state. Amtrak operates two round trips a day between the two cities on the state-supported Missouri River Runner route. The trains carried almost 200,000 passengers in 2013. Amtrak’s long-distance Southwest Chief, which stops in Kansas City; the Texas Eagle, which stops in St. Louis; and Amtrak’s Chicago-St. Louis corridor trains would be affected as well.
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In a Senate hearing Wednesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said the suspension could be averted if Congress passes a bill she has co-sponsored to give railroads five more years to install Positive Train Control.
“It’s unacceptable that we would disrupt passenger service in Missouri over this issue,” said McCaskill at a hearing of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Everyone knows Congress will adjust this deadline.”
But an extended deadline would still not resolve the basic question of who pays for it.
The two railroads, Kansas City Terminal Railway and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, are not required to install the system. Amtrak and Missouri say they should be.
Steve Kulm, an Amtrak spokesman, said the passenger railroad is working with the state on an “equitable solution.”
“We are hopeful a resolution can be reached to maintain current Amtrak services to Kansas City,” he said.
Amtrak already has received invoices from the two railroads for the installation expenses. But neither Amtrak nor Missouri is about to write a check.
The Missouri Department of Transportation “will not blindly pay for implementation costs” of Positive Train Control, its director, David Nichols, wrote to Amtrak in December.
Amtrak and the state maintain that the railroads should bear the burden of installing the system because of their freight operations. For example, 250 freight trains a day operate over Kansas City Terminal’s track in addition to six passenger trains. Kansas City is the nation’s second-busiest rail hub, behind Chicago. St. Louis ranks third.
But the terminal railroads in Kansas City and St. Louis are classified as smaller railroads not subject to the installation requirement. Larger railroads, including BNSF and Union Pacific, are installing the system but are not likely to meet the December deadline.
Missouri asked the Federal Railroad Administration in December to treat the terminal railroads like the larger ones because of their heavy freight volumes and because the larger railroads have an ownership stake in them.
Michelle Teel, multimodal operations director for the Missouri Department of Transportation, testified in the Senate on Wednesday that Positive Train Control installation requirements “should not be triggered by a small amount of passenger rail traffic, but rather should be based on operation volume, population density, tonnage and commodities moved, especially hazardous materials.”
McCaskill said the Kansas City-St. Louis corridor may not be the busiest passenger rail operation in the country, but it still provides a vital alternative to highways and air travel.
“It’s not the Northeast Corridor,” she said, “but it’s essential in my state.”