RPT - INSIGHT-Buffett's BNSF helped lead fight to delay train safety technology

Wed Nov 4, 2015 7:00am EST
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(Repeats for additional subscribers)

By David Morgan and Nick Carey

WASHINGTON Nov 4 (Reuters) - When an Amtrak passenger train derailed in Philadelphia in May, killing eight people and injuring scores more, the railroad industry's campaign to delay a Dec. 31 deadline to install technology to prevent such disasters appeared to be finished.

Not, as it turned out, if billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, had anything to do with it. Thune chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the rail industry.

Last week, under pressure from companies including Buffett's BNSF Railway Co, which has spent more money lobbying Congress this year than any other railroad, U.S. legislators passed, and President Obama signed, a law that delays the so-called positive train control mandate for at least three years, with the possibility of an additional two-year delay.

That means railroad operators can put off having to buy and install equipment that safety advocates say would have prevented accidents that have claimed more than 245 lives and caused over 4,200 injuries since the National Transportation Safety Board began calling for the technology in 1969.

Railroad advocates presented a blunt argument: Unless the mandate to install positive train control technology was delayed, the railroads would attempt to cripple the economy. Railroads that missed the deadline to install systems that automatically slow or stop a train under dangerous circumstances claimed that they would face heightened liabilities by operating outside of federal law, and that therefore they would decline to carry passengers, including commuters. They wouldn't deliver commodities that are classified as hazardous, but are also vital to the economy - including chemicals like chlorine and ammonia needed to run city water treatment plants, refine oil and keep farms and factories running.

BNSF, at $3.9 million, was the biggest spender among individual rail operators as railroads and allies including unions and regional transit authorities spent almost $25 million lobbying Congress on PTC and other issues, according to Senate documents.

BNSF, along with Norfolk Southern Corp and Canadian Pacific Railway, referred questions for comment to the Association of American Railroads.   Continued...