January 2008 – AggBeat
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by Tina Grady Barbaccia, Senior Editor
Federal Rail Safety Program Funding Approved
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 377 to 38 to reauthorize the Federal Railroad Administration and fund federal rail safety programs for the next four years.
The Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2007 (H.R. 2095) renames the agency the “Federal Railroad Safety Administration” and seeks to address a number of issues pertaining to employee fatigue, grade crossing safety, employee training, and positive train control, according to the vote.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Republican leader, says that he is concerned that this rail safety bill “concentrates too much on accommodating a big labor wish list rather than on the most effective means to improve rail safety.” He notes that 97 percent of rail fatalities involve grade crossing accidents and trespassers, but that the bill focuses primarily on the other 3 percent of fatalities that occur.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), ranking member on the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, says that during the past 30 years, there has been tremendous progress in rail safety. “But I believe that we can and must do more,” Shuster said in a press release. “This landmark legislation goes far to promote a safer rail system in our country. However, we must do more to deal with rising incidents of rail accidents from trespassing and rail crossing collisions. While this bill does include language to deal with these issues, it is my hope that the committee will look closely at these issues in the future.”
The bill increases the number of FRA safety inspectors from 421 to 800, an increase with an uncertain potential for improved safety. Advanced technologies are capable of detecting track defects that are invisible to the human eye, and the bill authorizes the acquisition of several more cost-effective advanced track inspection vehicles.
The bill also mandates the installation of positive train control (PTC) systems by the end of 2014; these systems are intended to help eliminate train collisions caused by human error.
The FRA reports that less than 2 percent of accidents per year involve incidents preventable by PTC. For instance, in 2006, three PTC-preventable train accidents resulted in six deaths, compared to the 369 people killed at grade crossings and 517 trespassers killed in the same year.
The mandated installation of PTC will cost billions — costs that are likely to be passed on to shippers through rate increases.
The bill includes some grade crossing safety improvements. A provision requested by U.S. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) authorizes up to $250,000 in emergency funding for any crossing, which experiences a collision with a school bus or an accident with three or more injuries or fatalities. Additionally, U.S. Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) contributed to the development of a provision fostering the use of advanced warning devices at rail crossings.
The bill contains a phase-down of “limbo time,” the time train crews must wait to be picked up after a run. In some instances these workers, who are considered to be neither on-duty nor off-duty, can wait several hours for transportation. The bill gradually limits limbo time to 10 hours per month, making exceptions for accidents, track obstructions, “acts of God,” weather delays, and other circumstances.
The bill increases fines for safety violations by $30 million for the years 2008 to 2012, and $60 million in the years 2008 to 2017.
The bill also places the National Transportation Safety Board in charge of assisting families of rail accident passengers, as is the case with aviation accidents.
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