WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The chair of a congressional committee on Thursday urged U.S. railroads and transit agencies to meet a looming deadline to install an anti-crash technology called positive train control after a series of recent crashes.
"I think the American public is tired of excuses," Representative Jeff Denham, a Republican who chairs the panel that oversees railroads, told a hearing on railroad safety. "Ignoring a congressional mandate again won't be tolerated."
The technology known as PTC automatically stops a train to prevent a derailment or crash but is in operation on only 45 percent of tracks owned by freight railroads and 24 percent of tracks owned by passenger railways, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
In 2008, Congress required that PTC be implemented across the country by the end of 2015, then extended that deadline to the end of 2018. The government can stretch the deadline to 2020 to complete some aspects of the system.
Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, said some commuter railroads "have barely made any progress" and may not qualify for extensions. "Let me be very clear. No, we are not extending PTC again. Lives are at stake," he said.
FRA acting chief Juan Reyes said the agency has met with all 41 railroads and transit agencies since January to discuss PTC. "We're going to keep pushing them," Reyes said at the hearing.
Amtrak Chief Executive Richard Anderson said it is likely that the entire PTC system will not be operational by the end of the year on a "significant number of routes" outside the Northeast corridor.
Amtrak will suspend operations on tracks where railroads have not received approval to complete PTC after the end of the year and is debating whether to "continue to operate over such routes until PTC is turned on."
He said in areas that where PTC is not currently required such as in yards and terminals Amtrak is considering whether it will continue service after the end of year. "We have a question about whether we're going to operate at all and I doubt we will," Anderson said.
The project has lagged in part because of the $14 billion cost of installing it on 60,000 miles (96,000 km) of track and 18,500 locomotives, industry officials say.
The National Transportation Safety Board said that a December derailment of a speeding Amtrak train that killed three people near Seattle could have been prevented with operating PTC. The NTSB has investigated 150 crashes since 1969 that could have been prevented by PTC that claimed almost 300 lives.
"The NTSB is gravely concerned that the majority of the nation's railroads required to install PTC will not have fully operational PTC systems" by the deadline, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at the hearing.
Edward Hamberger, the chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, said ensuring trains from one railroad can operate on another's tracks "has been a significant challenge." (Reporting by David Shepardson Editing by Matthew Lewis)