July 02--WEST HAVEN -- Even though Metro-North last year became the symbol of slipshod operations, railroad safety is a growing concern across the country and deserves federal intervention, Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Tuesday.
Setting tougher rules for passenger and freight railroads is the goal of legislation he'll propose later this month, said Blumenthal, chairman of a Senate committee on rail safety.
With accidents, including oil train derailments and fires, occurring at an alarming rate in the past year, Blumenthal believes the bill will get bipartisan support even in sparsely developed states where passenger rail service doesn't exist.
"Cascading catastrophic crashes, devastating derailments, serious delays and service disruptions clearly show that our rail safety protocols, standards and management are woefully insufficient," Blumenthal said at a press conference at the West Haven railroad station.
Blumenthal anticipates some resistance from the rail industry, and said the key to passing tougher legislation will be swaying enough votes among Republicans as well as Democrats.
Most Senate Republicans oppose measures that would raise federal spending, and the GOP is often resistant to expanding government regulation of industry. But railroads can put many of the new safety improvements into effect with little expense, Blumenthal said. A string of Metro-North accidents, combined with the widespread nature of the Bakken crude oil train explosions, has gotten the attention of his committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Roy Blunt, Blumenthal said.
Blumenthal has not drafted specifics of his bill, but promised that it would require expanded use of new technology for track inspections, double signal protections for employees doing track work, inward- and outward-facing cameras at the engineer's seat, and higher standards for tanker cars carrying crude oil and petroleum.
Bakken crude oil shipments from North Dakota have increased hazardous material tanker trips exponentially in the past year. Bakken crude moves through New York by freight train, but Connecticut rails are much more likely to be carrying ethanol, Blumenthal said.
The Federal Railroad Administration shares "a major share of the blame" for some of Metro-North's accidents, including the Dec. 1 wreck in the Bronx where a speeding train hurtled off the tracks in a speed-restricted curve, killing four passengers. All indications so far are that the engineer fell into a daze or was dozing, and Blumenthal said stricter enforcement of worker fatigue rules could have prevented the crash.
A half-year earlier, a rookie controller mistakenly cleared a train to run through a stretch of track in West Haven where Supervisor Robert Luden was still working. He was killed. The FRA fined Metro-North $5,000.
"That was outrageous. The FRA clearly dropped the ball," said John Hartwell, vice chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, who appeared at the announcement alongside Blumenthal and former council Chairman James Cameron.
"The watchdogs were asleep. The FRA has been lax and sluggish," Blumenthal said, emphasizing that passenger railroads aren't the only concern. "In our hearings, I've heard a series of horror stories [from other states] of near derailments of tanker cars."
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