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State delegation calls for stronger rail-safety measures

Published 12:32 pm, Wednesday, May 7, 2014

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  • A sign advertizes Metro-Norths 100 Day Action Plan on a train from Grand Central Terminal to Stamford, Conn., on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. Photo: Lindsay Perry / Stamford Advocate
    A sign advertizes Metro-Norths 100 Day Action Plan on a train from Grand Central Terminal to Stamford, Conn., on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. Photo: Lindsay Perry

 

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After a calamitous year in which four Metro-North Railroad passengers and two track workers were killed, members of Connecticut's congressional delegation are calling for legislation to push for new collision-avoidance technology and to strengthen safety procedures.

U.S. reps. Rosa DeLauro, Elizabeth Esty and Jim Himes gathered at Union Station in New Haven on Tuesday morning prior to boarding a train to Washington, D.C., where they plan to introduce the Rail Safety Enforcement Act.

The bill would force commuter railroads to submit a plan to implement the positive train-control system, which provides automatic braking to avoid collisions, no more than six months after the law takes effect. Rail lines where speeds exceed 25 mph would also have to install alerting devices to jolt inattentive engineers when trains exceed maximum speed limits.

Himes emphasized that in Connecticut's case, a focus on safety should not halt efforts to improve speed and quality of service that could be a cornerstone of reducing congestion and boosting the state's economy.

"Safety is the most important thing," Himes said. "But transportation and housing are absolutely at the core of what this state needs to do for jobs."

Also included in the bill is a provision for redundant protection systems for right-of-way workers to prevent trains from entering closed sections of track during maintenance or repair operations. It would also require comprehensive plans to reduce fatigue among engineers, right-of-way workers and other personnel.

Since last year, Metro-North has had two derailments -- one in the Bronx, N.Y., that killed four people as an allegedly groggy engineer entered a curve at nearly three times the maximum speed -- and has had two track workers killed by trains. A total of 129 people have been injured in the derailments, according to the railroad.

The installation of positive train-control technology was first mandated by Congress in 2008, following a California rail collision that killed 25 people.

Last week, President Barack Obama's administration introduced the Grow America Act, a $302 billion, four-year surface reauthorization bill, which included $2.4 billion for commuter railroads to install the train-control technology.

Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy for the American Public Transportation Association, which represents 29 commuter railroads nationwide including Metro-North, said the federal funding is necessary for railroads to move more quickly with new collision-avoidance technology.

Metro-North and other railroads also need federal help to obtain radio spectrum needed to operate the technology, which relies on Global Positioning Systems signaling track-side transponders, as well as latitude in developing systems for their individual territories, Guzzetti said.

"Without help on those three formidable hurdles, it is a mandate without the wherewithal to deliver it," Guzzetti said. "It is tough to put so many resources into the PTC basket, and it raises the question about all the other needs, many of which involve safety and a state of good repair."

Metro-North spokesman Aaron Donovan said Metro-North's ongoing efforts to revamp safety cover much of the bill.

"The railroad is currently addressing various components of the proposed legislation with actions such as eliminating or retrofitting all cars that lack alerters by the end of this year, broadening our existing fatigue-management program, expediting the implementation of positive train control and activating industry leading technology to keep employees on the tracks safe," Donovan said. "We appreciate the delegation's attention to these important issues and look forward to working with the delegation to further pursue our shared goal of enhanced safety."