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U.S. to fine railroads that fail to implement PTC safety system

A worker climbs onto a crude oil train at the Eighty-Eight Oil LLC's transloading facility in Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, in this file photo taken July 15, 2014. Makers of the tank cars railroads use to ship oil in North America are betting on a lift from new safety standards, but the boost could be short lived, analysts and industry officials said. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/Files

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. railroads that fail to implement a safety technology system known as positive train control, or PTC, will face federal fines beginning Jan. 1, the top federal railroad regulator said on Wednesday.

Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, told a House of Representatives oversight panel that the fines could be assessed per violation, per day, depending on a railroad's implementation progress.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has been calling on railroads to implement PTC since the late 1960s, says the technology, which can automatically slow or stop a train to avoid an accident, would have prevented the May 12 Amtrak derailment that killed eight and injured more than 200 others in Philadelphia.

But most railroads are expected to miss a Dec. 31 implementation deadline that Congress imposed seven years ago.

"Starting on Jan. 1, FRA will impose penalties on railroads that have not fully implemented PTC," Feinberg said in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

"The total amount of penalty each railroad faces depends upon the total amount of implementation progress the railroad has made," she said.

As examples, Feinberg said fines could include $2,500 for failure to keep records and $25,000 for failure to complete PTC implementation on a track section.

FRA is tracking 38 freight and commuter railroads for enforcement purposes. Thirty-two of the railroads have installed at least some PTC equipment on half of their locomotives and replaced about half of their signals with PTC-caliber equipment, Feinberg said.

She cited industry projections showing that by the end of 2015, about 40 percent of locomotives will be fully equipped with PTC and 34 percent of employees will be trained on the equipment.

Amtrak has said it expects to have PTC implemented in its busy Northeast Corridor by the December deadline.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are discussing possible legislation to extend the deadline for PTC implementation until as late as 2020.