"This is not an issue where the industry is trying to get out of this mandate," said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. "We have invested too much in it already, and it is in our best interest to get it done as soon as possible."
But safety, labor and passenger advocates are skeptical that most railroads will ever implement the system without more government pressure.
"When they are pushing for a five-year extension with no changes you have to wonder if they aren't hoping that some deregulatory White House will come along before then and just lift the burden," said Ross Capon, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.
"It's one thing to say we can't get it all done by the end of 2015. It's quite another thing to say we want a blanket, industry-wide pass for five more years," he said. "That's suggestive of bad faith."
"For every day that it is delayed, the threat of another accident remains," NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.
Railroads have invested heavily in making their case to Congress. Last year, the industry spent nearly $47 million lobbying the federal government, according to the political money-tracking website OpenSecrets.org. The industry's 329 registered lobbyists include former Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux, D-La., and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, as well as dozens of former House and Senate aides.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chief sponsor of the bill to extend the safety deadline, has received $672,836 in political contributions from the railroad industry and associated individuals since 1998. One of his top contributors was DM&E Railroad, based in Sioux City, S.D., which had close ties to the South Dakota GOP. It was acquired by Canadian Pacific Railways in 2008.