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(Adds background on PTC, legislation)
WASHINGTON, Oct 20 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers from the House of Representatives and Senate have reached an agreement to extend a Dec. 31 deadline for railroads to implement new safety technology, a leading Republican senator said on Tuesday.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said that talks between the two chambers have successfully bridged differences on a three-year extension of the deadline for railroads to implement positive train control, or PTC.
"Congress now needs to pass this plan in the coming weeks to avoid service disruptions that will impact shippers across the country and commuter railroad passengers," Thune said in a statement issued by the committee. "This PTC extension will keep the pressure on freight and passenger railroads to ensure safety benefits are realized as soon as possible."
PTC is a complex communications system that can avoid derailments and other accidents by automatically slowing or stopping a train. U.S. safety officials say the technology would have avoided the May 12 Amtrak derailment that killed eight people and injured more than 200 in Philadelphia.
Most U.S. railroads are expected to miss the Dec. 31 deadline for adopting the technology and have threatened to suspend freight and passenger service on major lines after Jan. 1, 2016, if lawmakers fail to grant an extension.
Railroads say PTC implementation has been hampered by high costs, bureaucratic delays and technological hurdles.
House lawmakers introduced legislation last month to extend the deadline for at least another three years.
Senators enacted their own bipartisan measure in July that would allow the U.S. Transportation Department to approve extensions on a case-by-case basis.
Rail operators have warned that they could begin notifying customers of possible service suspensions as early as the end of October. (Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Eric Walsh and Eric Beech)