Senators Call for More Funding to Improve Safety at Rail Crossings

Repost from The Albany Times Union

Senators push for safety: Schumer, Blumenthal unveil their plans to improve rail crossings

By David McCumber, Hearst News Service, February 15, 2015
This February 4, 2015 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) board member Robert Sumwalt(L) and other members of the investigation team, view a damaged rail car involved in Metro North train accident in Valhalla, New York. Safety on one of America's busiest commuter rail services was under the spotlight Wednesday after a packed passenger train slammed into a jeep, killing six people north of Manhattan. It was the worst of three deadly crashes in less than two years on the Metro North line that carries around 280,000 passengers a day. The woman driver of a jeep, which became stranded on the tracks, and five rail passengers were killed in the February 3 rush-hour accident, which ripped up tracks and ignited a major explosion. Fifteen other people were injured, seven of them seriously, in what should have been a monotonous but totally safe journey home to the suburbs after a busy working day in America's largest city.  AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / NTSB    == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE / MANDATORY CREDIT: "AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / NTSB "/ NO MARKETING / NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS / NO A LA CARTE SALES / DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ==--/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: New York Photo: -- / AFP
This February 4, 2015 members of the NTSB investigation team view a damaged rail car involved in Metro North train accident in Valhalla, New York. Safety on one of America’s busiest commuter rail services was under the spotlight Wednesday after a packed passenger train slammed into a jeep, killing six people north of Manhattan. It was the worst of three deadly crashes in less than two years on the Metro North line that carries around 280,000 passengers a day. The driver of a jeep, which became stranded on the tracks, and five rail passengers were killed in the February 3 rush-hour accident, which ripped up tracks and ignited a major explosion. Fifteen other people were injured, seven of them seriously, in what should have been a monotonous but totally safe journey home to the suburbs after a busy working day in America’s largest city. AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT / NTSB

Washington – Reacting to a safety threat both regional and national, U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Richard Blumenthal announced new federal legislation Sunday to improve safety at rail crossings like the one at which six people died in an accident on Metro-North’s Harlem line in Valhalla, Westchester County, earlier this month.

“The pain is still fresh … and Sen. Blumenthal and I feel compelled to act,” Schumer said as the two Democratic senators announced the bill at a Grand Central Station news conference. “We must improve safety at rail crossings for the sake of our drivers and our rail passengers.”

In 2013, more than 200 people died nationwide in 2,096 rail-crossing accidents, and the rate has held steady at about 2,000 accidents a year for several years. Over the decade from 2005 to 2014, there were 341 accidents in New York state, causing 59 deaths and 96 injuries, according to Federal Department of Transportation records.

The legislation would provide about $800 million over four years to local governments, states and the federal railroad and highway administrations to improve crossing safety, by focusing on engineering fixes, public education and safety enforcement.

Among the bill’s provisions is $100 million a year for four years to revive a tool provided to the Federal Railroad Administration by Congress in 2008 — but never implemented. It is a grant program designed to provide funding to states for specific engineering and technological fixes, public education and targeted law enforcement.

“It’s very unfortunate that Congress has neglected these programs,” Blumenthal, of Connecticut, said in an interview later Sunday. “Programs that the federal government had instituted to remedy these gaps … have gone unfunded and ignored.”

Blumenthal said that of the 212,000 rail crossings nationwide, nearly half have no active warnings — no lights, sounds or barricades, just a stop sign. “What you have are death traps for the unwary and unwarned,” he said. “We’re using 19th-century technology in the 21st century.”

He said the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Highway Administration have failed to focus on the problem. “They have not sounded the alarm,” he said. “They have been as silent about this danger as the unprotected crossings themselves.”

The bill would also:

  • Reauthorize yet another defunct FRA program to help states and communities relocate rail lines to fix glaring safety problems, providing $25 million per year for four years;
  • Increase funding for the Federal Highway Administration’s Railway-Highway Crossing Program, which provides for “separation or protection of grades at crossings, the reconstruction of existing railroad grade crossing structures, and the relocation of highways to eliminate grade crossings.” The $50 million per year for four years provided by the bill is in addition to the fund’s current budget of $220 million per year.
  • Increase FRA’s manpower to focus on grade-crossing issues;
  • Require the FRA to analyze new technology the public can use to report grade-crossing dangers;
  • Strengthen the federal government’s collaboration with Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to rail-safety education.

Blumenthal has been one of the Senate’s most strident advocates of increased rail safety, particularly since a spate of injuries and fatalities in accidents on Metro-North in 2013. He has been sharply critical of enforcement lapses at FRA, which regulates passenger and freight rail safety.

Schumer and Blumenthal are optimistic that the bill will find bipartisan support. “Many of these crossings are in states with Republican senators,” Blumenthal said. “And this bill can more than pay for itself if it reduces accidents. The 2,000 accidents each year — nearly one every three hours — cost $2.2 billion in property damage alone.”

“Too many innocent victims, drivers, train passengers and railroad employees have died,” Blumenthal said Sunday. He said these tragedies “are preventable … but without the decisive steps we urge, rail grade crossings will continue to be accidents waiting to happen.”

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