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HV Congressman Introduces Rail Safety Crossing Bill

Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney
Courtesy of the Office of Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney

New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney has introduced legislation to improve safety at rail crossings, the day after a fatal Metro-North crash in Westchester County. Meanwhile, the crash investigation that began Wednesday is expected last another four-to-six days.

Maloney introduced the Rail Crossings Safety Improvement Act less than 24 hours after a Metro-North evening commuter train slammed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks at a rail crossing in Valhalla. Five people aboard the train were killed along with the SUV driver, resulting in the deadliest accident in Metro-North history. And while an investigation is ongoing and there has not been any indication of a rail crossing malfunction, Maloney, a Democrat, says it is time to be proactive.

“We believe there is an important and responsible step we can take immediately while we gather all the facts on the nature of this particular accident, and we can do that in a bipartisan way, yes,” says Maloney.

His legislation would reauthorize the Rail Line Relocation & Improvement Capital Grant Program at $100 million a year for the next four years.

“This is the source of federal funding that directly relates to the safety of rail crossings and allows state and local governments to make improvements that makes sense for them and have a generous federal match program to do it,” Maloney says. “I believe the match is about 90-10 for local communities so it’s a very healthy federal match.”

Maloney points to statistics in New York that there are 5,304 grade crossings, and, according to the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety, from 2012-2014, there were 81 accidents, 15 deaths, and 23 injuries at grade crossings. The Valhalla crash occurred at the Commerce Street crossing, one of a few grade crossings in Democratic Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti’s district.

“These are anachronistic and we really need to find a way to eliminate on-grade crossings,” says Abinanti. “And if we can’t do that to most modern technology available to make them safer.”

Maloney, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is also calling for Congress to pass his legislation, the Commuter Rail Passenger Safety Act, which would allow commuter and freight rail systems to apply for loans and loan guarantees to invest in positive train control systems through the Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing Program, a $35 billion loan fund. He introduced that legislation following the December 2013 fatal Metro-North derailment in the Bronx that killed four. Maloney says the key is providing railroads like Metro-North access to financing and grants to meet deadlines to implement the costly PTC technology. He says the Wi-Fi and GPS-based safety technology would allow for the detection of grade crossing malfunctions or objects on the tracks.

“That’s why things like positive train control are so important because that technology really allows us greater control over these trains in the event of human error,” says Maloney. “And it involves IT infrastructure that can be used to improve the safety of things like rail crossings because PTC, of course, allows you to know the exact position of the train to control the train and can be expanded to include sensors at crossings or other early warning systems that when linked to automatic train braking can give us much more time to slow a train down before it hits a vehicle that’s in a crossing.”

Meanwhile, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board conducting an onsite investigation into Tuesday’s fatal crash, says neither he nor the lead investigator are aware of any available technology that would alert a train engineer that there is an object on the tracks. While briefing reporters Wednesday evening, Sumwalt addressed a question about Metro-North and safety.

“The questions is concerning the prior accident history of Metro- North and is enough being done to ensure safety. And I want to point out that yes, the NTSB did release a report the third week in November, a special investigation report, about the organizational issues with Metro-North,” says Sumwalt. “I believe those issues, at the time that report was issued, was valid. But I also want to caution that there may be no relationship between those issues that we found in that special investigation report and this accident.”

Credit Courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board

He says the NTSB team had planned to verify information downloaded Wednesday from event recorders concerning the train’s speed when it hit the SUV. Sumwalt says the initial indication is that the fire that burned out the entire first car of the train was fueled from gasoline in the SUV. Sumwalt says investigators are looking at highway traffic signals, rail traffic signals, and rail crossing signals, as each has recorders the NTSB has downloaded. Sumwalt says the NTSB hopes to interview the train engineer and conductor Thursday or Friday. And the NTSB is asking anyone who has any information about the crash, especially through cell-phone or security video, to email witness@ntsb.gov.

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