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Officials call for better rail safety

Mar 15, 2007 |

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer is calling for a task force to investigate all upstate New York CSX accidents this year. "For far too long, CSX has failed to prevent these incidents and protect upstate New York communities from these recurring accidents. Federal regulators have not done nearly enough to crack down on these companies after accidents to improve and secure the rail infrastructure across the state," he said.

"The task force I am proposing would have the sole focus of getting to the root cause of these accidents to ensure that CSX is taking all necessary steps to avoid a catastrophe. Unfortunately, CSX's track record this year may have put us on a collision course for disaster."

During a conference call Wednesday with reporters, Schumer said that since 2000 there have been 572 rail accidents in communities across upstate New York, causing nearly $34 million in damages. Not all of those 572 accidents involved CSX and Schumer could not provide a solid count on that figure.

"Monday's accident in the City of Oneida is just one in a series of dozens of accidents, derailments and fatal crashes that CSX has been involved in across upstate New York," he said.

He noted a January incident in East Rochester where 13 cars on a CSX train derailed. There were no injuries but at least two motorists were nearly hit by falling trailers that had dislodged from their cars.

Also in January, 20,000 gallons of methanol caught fire at a CSX rail yard in Selkirk, N.Y., which is where the derailed train in Oneida was headed.

Schumer also noted a December incident where a CSX train carrying vegetables derailed on an overpass in Cheektowaga, N.Y.
And he said that while nobody was injured in Monday's accident, had the explosion occurred in a more populated area it could have been much worse.

Schumer says that's the real worry, "one day one of the trains derails in a populous area and spills poisonous chemicals like chlorine and unfortunately it's a real possibility because according to the National Transportation Atlas Database three million tons of chemicals are transported on New York's rail networks every year."

Schumer's proposed task force would include members from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

"The FRA hasn't done the job in terms of inspections, in terms of fines, in terms of staying vigilant, there's a lot of carelessness there," Schumer said. "It's a real worry because railroads have not put in the capital that they used to in terms of new cars, new tracks, new switches."

As one of the authors of the bi-partisan Rail Crossing and Hazardous Materials Transport Act, Schumer feels recent train accidents will help get the bill through.

The bill calls for charging higher penalties to rail companies for gross negligence. If a fatality occurs fines could be anywhere from $50,000 to $10 million. For gross negligence not involving a fatality, the Federal Railroad Administration will be required to fine a rail company at least $5,000 but not more than $2.5 million.

"The legislation aims to crack down on negligent railroad companies and require the broader use of modern technology to protect the public from more fatal crossing and hazardous materials accidents," Schumer said in a news release.
The bill also sets age restrictions on cars carrying hazardous materials. It requires that every car be inspected and upgraded every fifteen years and that all rail cars over 15 years old be inspected and brought up to federal code within a year.

Schumer is also calling for immediate congressional hearings on freight rail safety.

"We've got to get to the bottom of this, find out what CSX is doing wrong, where they're cutting back, whether they are in violation of safety regulations and whether there has been negligence or carelessness that has caused this rash of accidents," he said.

CSX Spokesperson Bob Sullivan says his company is constantly working on safety and that rail is "by far the best mode of moving these materials."

"It's the nature of what we do, we have a steadily improving safety record," he said. "When we have an accident we investigate it and try to learn from it."

Sullivan explained that it's the responsibility of the Federal Railroad Administration to decide how often a track is inspected. He said the one in Oneida is inspected twice a week.

"In addition to that we also do inspections with specialized equipment that can go in and check the geometry of the track-it can check the integrity of the rails," he said. "A lot of inspecting gets done here."

Sullivan said the cars are inspected before each trip.

"They're going to look at the wheels, at the brakes and all of that," he said. "We also have equipment alongside of the tracks that checks the cars as they go by."

In response to recent events, Joseph Boardman, administrator to the Federal Railroad Administration announced Wednesday that through a rail safety re-authorization bill submitted to Congress, the FRA will have control over railroad worker hours and focus more on risk reduction.

"We must embrace new methods and strategies to further reduce the number of accidents in the rail industry," he said in a news release. "Railroads must be more accountable for the safety of their operations and rail employees need work schedules that reduce fatigue and promote safety."

Boardman noted that the FRA proposal would "replace railroad hours of service laws, first enacted in 1907, with comprehensive, scientifically based regulations to address the serious issue of worker fatigue."

The laws that set the maximum on-duty or minimum off-duty hours for train crews, dispatchers and signal maintainers will now be set by the FRA. It will be similar to the hours of service standards set for airline pilots and truck drivers.

The FRA Railroad Safety Advisory Committee, made up of railroad management and labor representatives will develop recommendations regarding hours.

The proposal also sets in motion some risk reduction programs.

"The FRA will place increased emphasis on developing methods to systematically evaluate safety risks in order to hold railroads more accountable for improving the safety of their own operations," stated the news release. "Including risk management strategies and implementing plans to eliminate or minimize the opportunity for workers to make errors which can result in accidents."

Local politicians are urging the New York State Public Safety Transportation Board to immediately examine safety issues related to rail transportation.

"The train derailment in Oneida highlights the need to examine and maintain the integrity of our transportation infrastructure, including rails. We are calling for an immediate response from the NYSPSTB regarding this accident," said Assemblyman David Townsend, R-115, in a news release Wednesday.

In a bi-partisan letter to the NYSPSTB Townsend, along with state Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-47, Sen. David Valesky, D-49 and Assemblyman William Magee, D-111, encouraged the board to take action in two key areas.

The officials want the condition of all railroads across New York state examined to "make sure that every mile of railroad is safe and in proper working condition."

Secondly, they are asking that the board require the contents of all railroad cars be listed on the trip manifest.

"Hundreds of people were forced out of their homes following the crash because first responders were not aware of the contents of freight cars that exploded or were in danger of exploding," states the letter. "Any first responder called to a similar situation in the future should have the confidence that a train's contents can be easily located."

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