Gov. Bill Walker signed a trio of bills into law last week with little fanfare. Two of the bills honored a prominent Alaskan and firefighters, but the third was critically important to the operation of the Alaska Railroad. Sponsored by Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, House Bill 140 will allow for the issuing of bonds to fund safety improvements necessary for the railroad to continue passenger service.
The safety improvements funded by HB 140 are part of a system called Positive Train Control that U.S. rail lines are required to implement in the near future — some by the end of this year, while others, including the Alaska Railroad, have until 2018 to have the system in place.
Positive Train Control, adopted as a requirement for lines by Congress in 2008, contains several important services for safe operation of rail lines. PTC systems are designed to be able to automatically slow or stop trains to avoid train-to-train collisions, derailments due to unsafe speed and train movement through switches left in the wrong position.
The issue, for the Alaska Railroad and other railroads in the process of implementing PTC systems, is that while Congress passed the law requiring the safety improvements, they made no move to help lines with the cost of adopting them. For the past several years, the Alaska Railroad has been piecing together funds with the help of the state and Alaska’s congressional delegation.
But the railroad’s struggle to find the money to make PTC upgrades has been hampered of late. Low revenue for the railroad has led to cutbacks in operations and staffing, leaving precious little money for the line to spend on non-essential services.
More recently, the state’s revenue picture also went south with the collapsing price of oil, leaving Gov. Walker and the Legislature in a position where devoting state capital funds to the PTC system was difficult to justify.
Fortunately, the railroad was able to work out a compromise with the state. HB 140 allows the railroad to issue tax-exempt bonds against its own assets for up to $37 million to pay for PTC improvements. It’s a solution that didn’t add to the state’s budget woes but will also let the railroad lay in the funds it needs.
Most of the safety improvements implemented by PTC show greater benefit to rail operators in busier locales than Alaska. Compared to the Lower 48, train-to-train accidents and derailments due to speed are rare. But it’s hard to make a good argument that a system won’t prevent an accident in the future just because it wouldn’t have prevented many in the past.
And for the railroad, the question of how many accidents the system might prevent is largely academic, as Congress mandated it be in place for the line to continue with passenger traffic.
The safety improvements of PTC will help the Alaska Railroad continue to serve the state.
It’s good to see cooperation between the railroad corporation, Gov. Walker and the Legislature to make that happen, even in tough budget times.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 8