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LA Train Crash Sparks Push for Reforms

Sep 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

This month's fatal crash of a Los Angeles commuter train has the U.S. Congress scrambling to pass what would be the first significant railroad reforms in 14 years.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has for years pushed for many of the safety rules now under consideration.

The fatal Metrolink train crash killed 25 people and injured 138.  Officials said 220 people were aboard the commuter train on Sept. 13, which was heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County.   The train was traveling at 42 mph when it ran head-on into a Union Pacific freight train traveling in the opposite direction.  According to the  NTSB, the Metrolink train’s engineer failed to stop at the final red signal, which forced the train onto a track where the Union Pacific freight was traveling.  

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of  a railroad reform bill, but must resolve differences before the election recess Friday.  If passed, the new laws would limit hours engineers work, mandate technology to stop trains on a collision course and enact the rail industry's first other major reforms in 14 years.

The last time Congress addressed railroad safety was in 1994, when it passed the Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act. But that law expired four years later.  Since then, critics say Congress has neglected railroad safety.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which regulates the railroad industry, has also been less-than enthusiastic about new reforms.  According to the Associated Press, the FRA says it can do its job without new safety inspectors, and while both the FRA and the railroad industry claim they support so-called positive train control technology, neither wants Congress to impose a timeline.  Critics of the FRA charge that it defers to the industry too much.

Compared to the industry it regulates, the FRA is a relatively small agency.  According to the Associated Press, the FRA's  430 inspectors must oversee an industry with over 235,000 employees and over 1.3 million freight cars running on 220,000 miles of track.

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