House bill delays rail safety mandate

February 9, 2012 - 6:55 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A long-sought safety feature that Congress required after a deadly 2008 rail crash would be delayed for five years under legislation that the House is expected to take up next week.

Shortly after a 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 would dictate the nation's future transportation agenda pushes back the installment deadline five years. Rail industry officials say more time is needed to deal with the complexity and costs associated with installing and operating 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. Meanwhile, many commuter lines are already struggling to keep up with existing maintenance needs.

Federal safety officials are voicing concerns about the proposed delay.

"We know from too many accidents that PTC would improve safety and save lives," said Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

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. Democrats have also questioned whether language in the bill would allow freight lines carrying toxic materials to delay implementation beyond 2020, but the aide said that's a misinterpretation of the bill and not what Republicans intend.

The Chatsworth crash occurred when a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles. Federal safety officials said the passenger train's engineer didn't stop at a red signal. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the engineer had been texting seconds before he drove through the signal. With positive train control technology, workers would have been able to monitor the movement of the train, warn the crew as danger approached, and automatically stop the train if the crew failed to heed the warning.

Veolia Environment, a company based in France, and Metrolink, which provides commuter rail service in Southern California, agreed to pay a $200 million award that was divided among victims of the crash. Veolia's subsidiary employed the engineer cited by federal officials as responsible for the crash.

Metrolink officials say they are fully committed to putting in place a positive train control system before the current 2015 deadline. Richard Katz, chairman of the Metrolink Board of Directors, said it will cost the commuter system more than $200 million to install the system and that the project is expected to be completed in the first half of 2013. He said that, rather than focus on a delay, Congress should focus on helping the industry overcome the technological hurdles that exist, such as by providing adequate radio spectrum.

"We made the hard decisions and delayed some other things because we thought it was the most important life-saving technology in generations," Katz said. "... Every year you delay, someone will die who doesn't have to."

Paul Hedlund, a Los-Angeles based attorney whose firm represented several of the Chatsworth crash victims, said he believed that the delay has more to do with saving the rail industry money than with overcoming technological issues.

"Nothing is ever quite ready for prime time. It's always, 'it could be better,'" Hedlund said.

The rail industry maintains a strong presence in Washington. In 2011, rail operators spent about $46 million lobbying Congress on an array of legislation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.