Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday he is introducing federal legislation that would require the nation's passenger and freight rail system, including Metro-North, to adopt what he calls "life-saving technology."
The Democrat's proposal would mandate so-called "alerters," which sound an alarm when a train engineer seems idle while a train is in motion. If an engineer doesn't respond, the train's brakes are automatically applied.
Blumenthal's bill would also enhance the Federal Railroad Administration's safety oversight abilities, boost civil penalties and require federal agencies to develop a national system for reporting close calls.
Blumenthal said Tuesday that he believes uneven enforcement of safety standards and light fines are reflective of a systemic failure that allowed the FRA to not take a strong hand in directing safety changes that might have prevented recent calamities on commuter and freight railroads.
"Realistically I believe a bi-partisan proposal has a real chance though any proposal has an uphill battle in this Congress," Blumenthal said. "But there should be bi-partisan support for this kind of measure and I think there will be because our whole nation has a stake in higher safety standards on our railways."
His proposal comes in the wake of two accidents involving Metro-North. On Dec. 1, a Metro-North train derailed in New York, killing four passengers and injuring more than 70 others. In January 2009, a signal maintainer was struck and killed in West Haven.
Blumenthal said Tuesday he also wants quarterly reports to be made to Congress, updating lawmakers on the progress being made on meeting interim National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, including those concerning fatigue and cameras.
He said that existing federal regulation and oversight of rail safety has been "shamefully inadequate."
Blumenthal said he hoped the legislation would also require so-called confidential close call reporting systems like Metro-North is attempting to implement, should be the industry standard. The systems allow railroad workers to anonymously report safety concerns through a third-party to be addressed.
"A lot of what we're doing here is assuring there are significant penalties and requiring life-saving technology like alerters, cameras and track inspection," Blumenthal said. "When workers see a practice or incident that violates safety standards they should be able to report it without fear of reprisal. It should be the norm."
Metro-North said it plans to install the "alerter" devices on trains later this year.
In May, Connecticut Reps. Rosa DeLauro, Jim Himes and Elizabeth Esty and New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney proposed their own legislation to improve rail safety. Their bill also required adoption of the automatic fail-safe device.