WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — The National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) on Oct. 27 commended the U.S. House of Representatives for passing a short-term extension of the highway bill, which includes a provision designed to avert  a major disruption to the U.S. rail system.

The House passed by voice vote a short-term extension of the highway bill to Nov. 20 that includes language extending the deadline for rail carriers to install positive train control (PTC) technology for three years – to Dec. 31, 2018.

“U.S. agriculture depends upon efficient and safe transportation involving all modes – rail, truck, barge and vessels – to move commodities to domestic and international customers,” said NGFA President Randy Gordon. “While we believe rail carriers retain a common-carrier obligation to serve shippers regardless of whether they have met the PTC deadline, we urge the Senate to approve this necessary extension to avoid the risk of triggering severe freight service disruptions and inefficiencies that would adversely affect the U.S. agriculture supply chain on the heels of near record harvests of corn and soybeans.”

The House floor action follows the house transportation and infrastructure committee’s markup and approval of its version of a six-year highway bill on Oct. 22, but a recognition that negotiations with the U.S. Senate to come to final agreement on a long-term bill will take longer than the Oct. 29 deadline when current highway funding authorization expires.

The PTC extension applies to Class I rail carriers on all rail lines that handle at least 5 million gross tonnes of traffic annually, and also are used to transport either passenger traffic or toxic inhalation hazard (TIH) cargo. Based upon public statements made by at least two significant Class I railroads, the NGFA has said that failure to extend the current Dec. 31  deadline in a responsible way could result in severe service disruptions and delays for a broad range of agricultural products, not just hazardous cargo. Class I rail carriers have reported major challenges in installing and implementing this new PTC technology – some of which is the result of delays in receiving approval of safety plans from government regulators and in obtaining radio spectrum and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) permits for the required communications infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the NGFA submitted a letter to the Surface Transportation Board on Oct. 23 signed by 32 national agricultural producer, commodity and agribusiness organizations, as well as NGFA state/regional affiliates, supporting a petition filed with the agency arguing that rail carriers cannot suspend unilaterally their common carrier obligation to serve shippers simply because they have not complied with the positive train control (PTC) requirement.