Congressional negotiators reach compromise
on rail safety measure
Published: September 24, 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Spurred by the deadly head-on crash of two trains in
Chatsworth, congressional negotiators agreed Tuesday to a groundbreaking
rail safety reform bill requiring many passenger and freight trains to
be equipped with technology that can automatically prevent collisions.
The measure had stalled before Sept. 12, when a Metrolink commuter train
crashed into a Union Pacific freight train, killing 25 people and
injuring 135. It was the worst rail accident in modern California
history -- one that might have been avoided, investigators say, if the
trains had automatic breaking systems.
The bill, however, would delay the required installation of so-called
"positive train control" systems until 2015 for most passenger service
and freight trains carrying hazardous materials, a compromise that
disappointed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
"No question it's good that there's a deal," Feinstein said, "and I hope
that it can be passed before this Congress comes to a close. Yet, I'm
very disappointed about the deadline."
Feinstein said she had hoped the railroads would be forced to act by
2012 for "at least the highest-priority single-track lines that carry
both passengers and freight."
Metrolink has to share most of its track with freight carriers, whereas
many commuter services around the United States have far less
competition with freight trains.
The compromise legislation will be put to a vote in the House today and
then go to the Senate before Congress is scheduled to adjourn Friday.
The bill would provide $50-million to help pay for the technology, cap
the number of hours that freight train crews could work each month at
276 hours -- the current limit is more than 400 hours -- and require the
U.S. Department of Transportation to draw up limits for passenger crews.
In addition, the bill would require the Federal Railroad Administration
to add safety workers.
Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spent part of Tuesday
sternly questioning rail officials about the Metrolink crash.
The senators repeatedly expressed frustration over the fact that in
Southern California, Metrolink and Union Pacific have to rely solely on
single engineers as the last defense against collisions.
Rail industry officials said the most advanced technology is not yet
developed enough to dependably work in Southern California's complex web
of passenger and freight traffic.
"I can't understand it, I can't be sympathetic with it," Feinstein said
during the briefing. "It's an incredible frustration to say you can
continue to operate passenger and freight on the same single track with
no collision-avoidance system."
The Sept. 12 crash near Chatsworth occurred after a Metrolink engineer
failed to heed three signals, warning him that another train was ahead
on the same track. The engineer was killed in the crash. Why the signals
were apparently missed remains under investigation by the National
Transportation Safety Board.
Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission directed rail
companies to immediately order employees not to use cellphones on the
job, in part because the Chatsworth engineer had sent and received text
messages on the day of the crash.
At one point in the hearing before Boxer and Feinstein, Metrolink
Chairman Ron Roberts disclosed that officials with the commuter rail
agency were discussing whether to immediately place a second engineer in
the cabs of all trains. On an average weekday, Metrolink operates about
145 trains, and adding a second engineer would probably increase the
rail line's costs.
However, shortly after Roberts' spoke, Metrolink officials in Los
Angeles downplayed the suggestion that two engineers would be used soon.
"I think Ron was correct in saying that we'll consider it," Metrolink
spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said. "But everything is on the table at this
Appearing with Roberts were Kitty Higgins, an NTSB board member; Dennis
J. Duffy, Union Pacific's vice president for operations; and Joseph H.
Boardman, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Some of the toughest questions were aimed at Boardman. The senators
bluntly accused his agency of failing to act as a safety regulator over
the nation's freight and commuter train services.
In his opening statement, Boardman acknowledged that positive train
controls would have prevented the Metrolink crash.
"When something like this collision has happened, we all make the
judgment that we have been waiting too long for this 'elusive'
technology and we are impatient in wanting a solution now," Boardman
said. "I share that impatience. I want action now, and you are providing
help in making that happen."
Boxer questioned Boardman about what he could do immediately to help
improve safety on rail lines in Southern California.
Unsatisfied with Boardman's answer that he couldn't do anything dramatic
immediately, Boxer replied: "So you can't do anything about safety?"
then added a few moments later "What powers do you have? What's your
job? You're sitting there saying you can't tell them to do anything?. .
. . You have the power, you don't want to do it, you'd rather work with
Boardman also said that older technologies that exist to alert engineers
of impending collisions or slow trains before crashes may not have
worked to stop the Metrolink train accident. Duffy said that lesser
train control systems "do not work particularly well on freight"
Feinstein left the hourlong hearing clearly exasperated with what she
heard, calling the Federal Railroad Administration "an old boys' club"
in an interview.
"I think they sit down and talk to the railroads," Feinstein said. "I
think they do what the railroads want."
In a statement after congressional negotiators had agreed on the rail
safety bill, Boxer noted that, "The Federal Railroad Administrator has
the ability under this bill to speed up the timeline" for the
installation of automatic breaking systems, "and I trust he will do it."