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Alaska Editorial: Costly mandate for Alaska Railroad

Posted: April 26, 2013 - 12:09am

This editorial was first seen in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

The Alaska Railroad received about half of what it asked for from the Alaska Legislature to keep moving ahead on the major technological upgrade known as “positive train control.”

The $19 million inserted by the House into the capital budget is far short of the $35 million the railroad asked for to keep the project going for the next two years.

As a result, expect the railroad to be back in Juneau next year seeking more funds, as it struggles to regain financial stability.

Freight revenues are down because of reduced shipments of jet fuel from North Pole and reduced coal exports from Healy are also hurting railroad finances.

Positive train control is one of the biggest changes to railroad operations in decades, but it comes at a price — estimated to reach $155 million for the Alaska Railroad during the next five years.

The railroad has spent about $55 million already. With the $19 million added to the capital budget just before adjournment, the railroad still needs about $70 million to finish the job.

Former President George Bush signed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which requires railroads to have the new technology in place by the end of 2015.

With this equipment, signals will be sent between trains to maintain safety and switches will be monitored to assure the proper alignment. Computers on each train and at railroad offices would track the position of each train by GPS and make automatic speed and braking adjustments.

The federal law says that if this equipment is not in place by the end of 2015, the Alaska Railroad will not be able to provide passenger service.

There are some reports that an extension for the nation’s railroads will be approved, as railroads in every part of the country are struggling to meet this challenge.

With the deadline fast approaching, the state-owned railroad has to move with all deliberate speed to come into compliance.

We’re glad to see the Legislature recognized the importance of this project to one of the most crucial links in Alaska’s transportation infrastructure.

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