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Some Amtrak ticket holders might soon find themselves riding the bus.
Struggling to meet a congressional deadline that mandates rail companies install new safety technology by January 1, 2019, Amtrak has suggested that it might swap out its train lines for buses — and rural passengers and local officials aren’t happy about it.
The safety system stirring the controversy is known as positive train control (PTC), which, according to Bloomberg, “automatically prevents trains from colliding with each other and prevents engineers from accidentally going too fast.” A system like this would prevent incidents such as the 2017 derailment on Washington to Portland Amtrak line. The train had been going 50 miles over the 30 mph speed limit, which resulted in the death of three passengers and injury of more than 100.
While the general consensus among officials is in favor of PTC, some officials have voiced concerns that they won’t be able to make the deadline. “Nobody is arguing that PTC or some safety feature isn’t necessary,” said Bill Sauble, the chairman of the Colfax Country Commission in New Mexico. “It’s just the timetable for getting it installed.”
This is especially pertinent to the Southwest Chief, a train that runs once a day to and from Los Angeles to Chicago. The line costs $1 billion a year to operate, but generates less than $600 million in revenue and has yet to install the PTC system.
Some US senators are pushing for a temporary prohibition for the use of buses, claiming that the switch would widen the gap between rural and urban communities.
“Replacing rail service with bus service for the nearly 11-hour bus ride from Dodge City to Albuquerque would disrupt service for passengers, increase barriers to travel and hobble local economies,” Senator Thomas Udall of New Mexico told Bloomberg. “On top of that, trading trains for buses is less safe and reduces ridership.”
Other local officials pointed out that some more vulnerable passengers who can’t use other modes of transportation depend on trains. “We have Dodge City residents who rely heavily on these services, particularly the elderly and disabled who do not desire to fly or drive long distances,” Dodge City Mayor E. Kent Smol said in a statement.
Buses, as a means of travel over trains, may also cause passengers significant inconvenience. For the Dodge City, Kansas to Albuquerque, New Mexico line (which may be exempt from PTC due to its light population) would be replaced by an 11-hour bus ride in addition to reducing passenger traffic and, ironically, safety.
At a meeting being held Thursday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s railroad panel, Amtrak Executive Vice President Scot Naparstek is scheduled to testify.
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