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As rail tragedies fade from memory, resistance to safety rule gains steam

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As rail tragedies fade from memory, resistance to safety rule gains steam

Railroad industry argues mandated project is unaffordable

  • The aftermath of Chatsworth rail disaster on Sept. 12, 2008.
    Kelly B. HustonThe aftermath of Chatsworth rail disaster on Sept. 12, 2008.
  • January 2005 rail crash in Graniteville, S.C., that killed nine people and caused the evacuation of 5,400.
    Centers for Disease Control and PreventionJanuary 2005 rail crash in Graniteville, S.C., that killed nine people and caused the evacuation of 5,400.
  • Frank Kohler was severely injured in the Chatsworth train wreck.
    Frank Kohler was severely injured in the Chatsworth train wreck.

Less than four years after a California train disaster spurred passage of major safety legislation, railroad companies are pushing hard to relax the law's chief provision.

They have won over key Republicans, and extracted a major concession from the Obama administration, in their bid to scale back and delay a system to prevent crashes such as the head-on collision that caused 25 deaths and 135 injuries in Chatsworth, Calif.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act, passed in late 2008 soon after the Chatsworth disaster, mandated the $13 billion project and stuck railroad companies with nearly all of the cost. The law calls for installation of a technology known as Positive Train Control, or PTC, that automatically puts the brakes on trains about to collide or derail.a

Railroads are required to install PTC by the end of 2015 on an estimated 70,000 miles of track used by trains carrying passengers or extremely hazardous materials such as chlorine.

The technology's champions include the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent advisory and investigative agency. It has advocated PTC for more than two decades to prevent accidents resulting from human error, the main cause of rail crashes.

Investigators with the agency have identified 21 train wrecks since late 2001 that, they say, would have been averted by PTC. In all, the accidents caused 53 deaths and nearly 1,000 injuries.

"PTC can prevent these human errors from causing collisions, hazmat releases, passengers killed and injured, and train crews being killed," said Steven Ditmeyer, a former rail industry executive and federal official who now teaches in Michigan State University's railway management program.

Serious train crashes, he said, "are very rare events, but they still occur."

PTC supporters such as Paul Hedlund, a lawyer for many families of Chatsworth victims, say they are appalled by efforts to relax the mandate. It's a "scary step backwards," Hedlund said, calling existing protections "horribly archaic."

Since 2008, he added, "We haven't had another crash of the magnitude of Chatsworth that would be affected by this but we are going to."

But the railroad industry and its allies, arguing that the project is unaffordable, have put up stiff resistance. They also maintain that the technology still needs to be refined, even though Amtrak already operates a similar system from Boston to Washington, D.C.

PTC critics have argued for delaying the installation deadline by three years, exempting as much as 20 percent of the track and allowing railroads to use other safety systems that might be cheaper, but also less effective.

The industry is bolstered by a political climate that is hostile to federal dictates, a factor behind the executive order President Obama issued early last year to streamline regulations. They have extra leverage because federal agencies are divided on the merits of the PTC mandate.

PTC opponents also are drawing ammunition from a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO assessment didn't address PTC's effectiveness but said technological hurdles could delay completion of the project beyond the 2015 deadline.

"What you hear from all the railroad companies is that everyone supports PTC in theory, but the realities of how difficult it is financially and technologically to install [mean] it can't happen by 2015," said Matt Ginsberg, director of operations for the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, which includes contractors that work on PTC installation.

The industry's strategy, he added, is that "instead of an outright repeal, they will slowly chip away at it, making small little tweaks that will make a big change overall in the effect of the rule."

Leading the resistance are the Association of American Railroads, which represents freight haulers and Amtrak, along with the American Public Transportation Association, which represents commuter rail systems. They have called PTC the biggest federal mandate the industry has faced in more than a century, and say they anticipated that the government would step up its financial support.

To deliver their message on PTC and other issues, railroad interests spend heavily on lobbying. According to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the railroad industry poured $73.4 million into lobbying in 2009 and 2010, and another $8.75 million in the first quarter of 2011.

The industry also has retained dozens of lobbyists, including the firm of former Senate powerhouses John Breaux, D-La., and Trent Lott, R.-Miss.

Meanwhile, as political currents have shifted and PTC has fallen out of the spotlight, the technology has fewer forceful advocates.

Former U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who led the push for PTC in the House and who argued for it since the 1990s, was voted out of office in 2010, when Republicans took control of the lower chamber.

The Democrat who perhaps was most pivotal in getting the rail safety act through Congress and signed into law was Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. Days after the Chatsworth crash in September 2008, she said the failure to install PTC would amount to "criminal negligence."

Today, she still favors PTC but no longer is a leader on the issue and is not a member of the panel with jurisdiction over railroads, the Commerce Committee. Feinstein's office quoted the senator as saying that she has urged colleagues to maintain the current deadline.

PTC systems include GPS and wireless communications technology and central control centers. They can monitor trains and stop them if they enter the wrong track or are about to run a red light.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, one of the accidents that PTC would have prevented was the freight train-commuter train collision in Chatsworth. The NTSB investigation blamed the accident on an engineer on the commuter train who ran a red light while text-messaging on a cellphone. (Metrolink, the rail system that operates the Chatsworth commuter line, hopes to finish installing its PTC system by mid-2013.)

The NTSB said the January 2005 rail crash in Graniteville, S.C., that killed nine people and injured 554 also would have been prevented by PTC. The crash punctured a chlorine tank car, releasing a toxic, greenish cloud that led to the evacuation of about 5,400 residents.

However, the agency responsible for enforcing the deadline has expressed ambivalence about PTC. The Transportation Department's Federal Railroad Administration concedes that PTC increases safety. But the agency says PTC would save only about four or five lives a year, not nearly enough to justify the cost – though the agency analysis was completed in 2005, before the Chatsworth disaster.

PTC advocates say the agency's analysis ignores the enormous business benefits that the technology could provide, not only by preventing accidents but by coordinating train traffic more efficiently and cutting shipping times.

Still, after the Transportation Department spelled out its rules for enforcing the PTC law, it was sued in November 2010 by the Association of American Railroads. The industry group accused the agency of issuing "a regulation that imposes a staggering and unjustified burden" that went beyond the intent of Congress.

Among other grievances, the industry said federal officials wrongly required railroads to put PTC on track that by 2015 will no longer be used to haul chlorine or other extremely hazardous materials.

The Transportation Department, to settle the litigation, offered to reduce the amount of track required to have PTC. The proposal, expected to be adopted in some form this spring, would remove 7,000 to 14,000 miles of track from the mandate, a cut of about 10 percent to 20 percent.

In an Aug. 23 announcement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood characterized the move as being in line with the Obama administration's initiative to streamline regulation.

NTSB officials, however, say the proposal also could have a pernicious effect. They say it could crimp regulators' flexibility to require PTC on troublesome track not specifically designated by the statute.

For instance, regulators can insist on PTC when they are concerned about the safety of track where freight trains haul, say, ethanol – a dangerous material, but not one of the extreme hazards specified in the law. But the head of the NTSB, Deborah Hersman, said her agency is concerned that the "ability to identify other high-risk corridors will be hampered" because, under the proposed change, the railroads no longer would have to provide the government with as much risk data.

Separately, House Republicans have advocated relaxing the PTC requirements. One of the leaders is U.S. Rep. John Mica of Florida, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Mica is one of the biggest recipients of railroad industry campaign contributions, with $182,298 since 2008.

He is working on a long-term surface transportation authorization bill that is regarded as a likely legislative vehicle for key breaks sought by the railroads. Lawmakers are expected to resume working in earnest on the authorization bill by the beginning of February.

Mica has voiced support for extending the PTC deadline by three years and allowing trains to use so-called non-technological safety systems.

Such systems, unlike PTC, can't automatically counter human error, which the Transportation Department says causes 40 percent of train accidents. Mica has described his goal as to "protect against overly-burdensome regulations and red tape."

Another vocal critic of PTC is U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the railroads subcommittee.

According to The Center for Responsive Politics, railroads were the top-contributing industry to his 2008 and 2010 election campaigns. Shuster has received $165,800 in campaign contributions from railroad interests since 2008.

He has criticized the PTC mandate ever since it was adopted. At a March hearing, Shuster advocated extending the deadline beyond 2015 and reducing the amount of track covered, while calling the existing requirements "regulatory overreach."

Talk of accommodating the industry, however, infuriates union leaders. "It's hard for me to believe that anyone can go to Congress and say with a straight face that seven years after the bill passed is 'not enough time for us to do this,''' said James Stem, legislative director of the United Transportation Union. "But that's what's going on."

It's also distressing to crash victims such as Frank Kohler.

Kohler was one of those injured in the Chatsworth disaster. He woke up after the collision lying on the ground with his head split open; he suffered a brain injury that, Kohler says, causes him to get confused and has ended his 36-year career as an emergency responder and registered nurse.

If PTC has been in place three years ago, Kohler said, he would have arrived home safely. Kohler added, "I would still have my professional life intact and I would be a productive member of society."

FairWarning is a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer, labor and environmental issues.

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