Emergency personnel work the scene of the deadly Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia in May. (Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press)

COME JANUARY, your commuter train might stop running. That’s because railways across the country might have to suspend operations should they fail to meet an end-of-year congressional deadline for installing safety technology — a possibility that is looking increasingly likely for many stretches of rail, according to a recent federal report. That’s unacceptable. Congress should extend the deadline, but the railroad systems must earn the extension by showing that they are making progress.

In 2008, Congress passed legislation requiring passenger and freight railroads to implement a communications technology called positive train control (PTC), which keeps trains from speed limit violations and collisions. It set a firm Dec. 31 deadline that the Federal Railroad Administration cannot waive: Congress alone has the power to delay. If it does not, liability concerns may stop trains from operating.

The problem is nicely illustrated by two Washington-area examples: Maryland’s MARC commu ter train service and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE). There are two components to the upgrade. One involves changes to the trains. Those are under the purview of MARC and VRE, and both say they fully expect their systems to be in compliance by the deadline. The second set of modifications, though, have to occur on the tracks. It’s up to Amtrak and the freight carriers who own the miles of rail in each state’s jurisdiction to get that job done. Amtrak has the system in place in the Northeast Corridor and says it will have finished testing by the deadline. The freight carriers, however, are not there yet. Chances are they still will not be in January. That threatens not only Maryland and Virginia commuter rails but also operations on carrier-owned rails throughout the country.

Railroad companies have little excuse not to get into compliance faster. Experts say PTC could have prevented May’s fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia. Eight people died there. The National Transportation Safety Board estimates that the technology could have saved 65 more lives between 2004 and 2014. Surely the threat of a standstill in January would push all parties involved to tune up their trains and their tracks. A shutdown would leave 50,000 Maryland and Virginia commuters stranded every day, if not more in other states. Contingency plans to put commuters on buses are hardly an acceptable substitute for mass railway travel.

There is a middle ground. The federal government needs to be able to impose fines and other penalties on delinquent passenger and freight lines, and commuters need to be able to get where they’re going. Congress should revise the 2008 legislation to give railroads more time to come into compliance, with consequences for those who fail to produce concrete plans for immediate improvement and meet milestones along the way.