House bill delays rail safety mandate

February 9, 2012 - 1:35 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A long sought safety feature that Congress required for much of the nation's rail lines would be delayed for five years under legislation that the House is expected to take up next week.

Shortly after a deadly 2008 train collision near Chatsworth, Calif., Congress required rail operators transporting passengers or toxic materials to install equipment by the end of 2015 that would automatically stop a train that is in danger of an accident.

Federal investigators cited the lack of such a safety system, referred to as positive train control, as a contributing factor in the Chatsworth crash that killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

But a House bill that dictates the nation's future transportation agenda pushes back the deadline five years. Rail industry officials say more time is needed to deal with the complexity and costs associated with installing the equipment.

"It's still really in the product development stage," said Rob Healy, vice-president of government affairs for the American Public Transportation Association, a trade association for commuter rail operators. "There's not only a dearth of technology, but also expertise in terms of getting this installed."

Rail industry officials have projected that that it would cost freight railroads nearly $6 billion to install the safety systems and that passenger railroads would spend another $2.4 billion. The federal government authorized up to $250 million over five years to help subsidize the costs, but so far has allocated $50 million specifically for the safety systems.

Federal safety officials have voiced concerns about the proposed delay. Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., that the agency has investigated scores of accidents in recent decades that could have been prevented if positive train control systems had been installed.

"The NTSB will be disappointed if installation of this vital safety system to prevent fatalities and injuries is delayed," Hersman said in a letter to Napolitano.

California's senators also oppose the delay. Just a few weeks after the Chatsworth accident, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer successfully included the 2015 deadline as part of a broader rail safety bill. Feinstein said she will urge colleagues to stick with the current deadline when the Senate takes up its version of the transportation bill.

Feinstein said she knew of no independent reports or research demonstrating a need for a delay and that every passenger rail system has submitted a plan to meet the deadline.

"I am aware that deploying modern rail safety systems comes at a cost," Feinstein said in a written statement. "But I believe there could be a far greater cost to human life if we choose to delay implementation of this critical safety technology."

A Republican aide not authorized to speak publicly about the bill said that House Republicans are still committed to requiring the technology and are not attempting to quash it.