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Senators demand quick action to make rails safe

Published 12:51 pm, Friday, March 7, 2014
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Frustrated with the leisurely pace of federal regulation in the face of Metro-North's accidents and a flood of crude oil being shipped in tank cars widely considered unsafe, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and other senators Thursday demanded quicker, more decisive action to make the nation's railroads safer.

Blumenthal, who took over the chairmanship of a key surface-transportation subcommittee a few days ago, used his first hearing as a bully pulpit to demand action and accountability from both regulatory agencies and the rail and oil industries.

Saying he was "disappointed and disturbed'' by regulatory laxity, he exhorted all the stakeholders to speed up the process.

"Nobody denies we need to get it right,'' he said, "but we need to get it done. These delays are putting people at risk.''

Federal Railway Administration boss Joseph Szabo told Blumenthal that as the agency has gone about its investigation of Metro-North after the Dec. 1 accident in the Bronx that killed four and injured 63, he and his staff have been "in near-daily contact'' with the railroad.

Later, asked by a reporter if he was satisfied with Metro-North's response to his agency's questions, Blumenthal did not answer directly, saying only, "We have very high expectations'' of the railroad, and he thought new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti "has his head in the right place.''

Szabo said the results of Federal Railway Administration's investigation, dubbed "Deep Dive,'' would be reported to Congress on March 17.

Feeling the senators' irritation, the regulators and industry representatives engaged in a little finger-pointing -- at each other.

National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman Christopher A. Hart expressed sharp disappointment with the FRA's lack of progress in implementing National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, including mandating the installation of audio and video recorders in locomotives and control cars, and a considerably more complicated technology called Positive Train Control.

Hart testified that Positive Train Control would have prevented at least 25 accidents his agency has investigated since 2004, in which 45 people died and more than 1,100 were injured -- including the Bronx accident.

Last week, the NTSB directly recommended installation of the recorders to Metro-North.

Hart said the first NTSB-investigated accident that could have been prevented by some sort of positive train control technology was a 1969 collision of two Penn Central commuter trains near Darien that killed four people and injured 43.

Since then, according to his written testimony, available technology has advanced greatly -- but many of the nation's railroads will not make Congress' deadline of deploying Positive Train Control by the end of 2015.

"It must be implemented and lives depend on it,'' Hart testified.

Hart said the NTSB's four investigations of 2013 incidents on Metro-North have been consolidated. In written testimony, he praised the railroad for its full cooperation. He said he expects the inquiry to be completed in the second half of 2014.

Regarding Positive Train Control, senators, other regulators and Edward Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, blamed the Federal Communications Commission's time-consuming locating requirements for the communications towers that would be needed for Positive Train Control along rail lines.

"Four people might be alive today'' if the NTSB's recommendations had been implemented, Blumenthal said, in reference to the Bronx fatalities.

The crude trains are a high safety priority for senators after several horrific accidents, including the one that destroyed the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic last July, killing 45, and a spectacular derailment near Casselton, N.D., in late December. No one was injured, but according to the NTSB, 476,000 gallons of crude oil were released from 18 tank cars, causing $6.1 million in damage.

The NTSB has called the tank cars, of a design referred to as DOT-111, "an unacceptable safety risk.''

In response to questions from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., American Petroleum Institute spokesman Prentiss Searles admitted "to my knowledge,'' DOT-111 cars are not being taken out of service yet. Several agencies, including the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, are trying to come up with new tank-car standards.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., clearly disgusted by the delays, asked the witnesses bluntly when new tank-car standards would be promulgated. He did not get a clear response.

U.S. freight railroads carried 415,000 carloads of crude in 2013, up from only 9,500 loads in 2008.

david.mccumber@hearstdc.com