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Canadian Pacific is facing a $328-million bill to outfit its U.S. network with a positive train control system.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Canada's two largest railways say they will be unable to meet a year-end deadline to install automated safety systems on their U.S. rail networks, risking fines levied by the U.S. regulator.

Sarah Feinberg, acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), told a House of Representatives committee on Wednesday that railways that do not implement the new systems designed to override crew controls, known as positive train control, or PTC, by Dec. 31 will face fines of as much as $25,000 (U.S.) a day.

"The rail system is not as safe as it could be without the full implementation of PTC," Ms. Feinberg said. "For several years, FRA has been sounding the alarm that most railroads have not made sufficient progress in implementing PTC."

A spokesman for Canadian National Railway Co. said the Montreal-based company is planning to spend $550-million to install the technology on 6,100 kilometres of U.S. mainline and 1,000 locomotives, but much of it is being developed "from scratch."

"The industry says it will not be in a position to implement the technology before 2018, with a further two years of testing required to ensure full interoperability," CN spokesman Mark Hallman said. "Safety is the industry's top priority, but installing such a complex system of systems requires time to perfect the required technology, for rigorous testing, for proper training of thousands of employees and for the collaborative efforts among rail carriers necessary to enable the fully interoperable PTC system mandated."

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. estimates it will cost $328-million to outfit its U.S. network, two-thirds of which has already been spent. "CP joins the rail industry in asking Congress to extend the deadline so we have time to meet it," spokesman Jeremy Berry said.

Canada is not requiring railways to install any such technology. Transport Canada and the Minister of Transport's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The technology, mandated by a U.S. law in 2008, can override in-cab controls to prevent train-to-train collisions, slow or stop a train if the operators disregard signals or exceed speed limits. The FRA found that positive train control would have prevented the May 12 crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that killed eight people.

The need for automated train controls in Canada was underscored by the fatal 2012 crash of a Via Rail passenger train in Burlington, Ont. The Transportation Safety Board's investigation concluded the crew misinterpreted the signals and failed to slow the train in order to safely make a crossover to an adjacent track.

The TSB found the train was travelling at four times the speed limit when it entered a crossover, derailed, and struck a nearby building, killing all three crew members and injuring 45 people. In the 2012 report, the TSB said it conducted five investigations in recent years that found misinterpretation of signals caused or contributed to collisions or derailments.

The TSB recommended Transport Canada implement "fail-safe" train controls, such as positive train control, on high-speed rail corridors. "Additional defences that have already been developed … would have prevented this accident," the TSB said.

The Association of American Railroads says developing and implementing the system across a 96,500-kilometre network is an "unprecedented technical and operational challenge." The group says companies have collectively spent $5-billion installing the on-board locomotive systems, track-side signals and related technology.

The AAR estimates that by the Dec. 31 deadline, 39 per cent of locomotives will be equipped, 67 per cent of radio gear will be in place and one third of the required employees will be trained. "Despite railroads' best efforts, various technical and non-technical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible," it said.