Congress Debates How to Cut Deaths at Railroad Crossings

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - infoZine

Saturday, July 23, 2005

By Ansley Haman – Washington D.C.

Members of Congress are working on a bill to reduce the number of deaths at railroad crossings, which increased 11 percent, to 368 in 2004, after a decade of decline.

"The railroads built this country, and those tracks have been there for over 100 years, but we cannot keep our heads buried in the sand," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Railroad Subcommittee at a Thursday hearing.

Of the 2004 accidents, railroads reported only 79 percent to the National Response Center, a federally mandated clearinghouse of transportation deaths, said Kenneth M. Mead, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Railroads did report all of the accidents to the Federal Railroad Administration, but often up to two months after the event, making it impossible for federal officials to investigate, Mead said.

Lack of federal investigations may be preventing a solution to these crossing deaths, said Vicky L. Moore, trustee for Angels on Track, a nonprofit railroad safety advocacy group. Moore lost her 16-year-old son, Ryan, in an Ohio train collision in 1995 and has since worked to improve grade crossings.

Of the 376 most serious railroad crossing collisions from 2000 to 2004, federal agencies investigated only 53, Mead said. Agencies investigated less than 1 percent of all train accidents in 2004. National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration officials told the committee they do not have the resources or manpower to investigate each crash.

Railroad companies attributed more than 90 percent of the accidents to automobile driver error or inattentiveness.

"Until we honestly know what causes these accidents, we cannot address this issue," Moore said.

Mead recommended that railroad accident reports should be accompanied by local and state police reports so that federal studies could be more comprehensive.

Subcommittee members discussed such fixes as requiring stop or yield signs at every grade crossing without lights or gates.

Installing gates at each crossing would cost billions. An alternative would be enforcing rules requiring railroads to clear rights of way for better visibility at crossings, Moore said.

"How can you yield to something you cannot see?" she asked.

All railroads budget for clearing of railways, said Edward R. Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads. CSX has a $30 million program to clear-cut vegetation along tracks, he said.

Replacing all grade crossings with overpasses is prohibitively expensive - each can cost up to $10 million. Hamberger said railroads favor blocking road traffic at some railroad tracks.

Local governments often leave crossings open to avoid confrontation with community groups that want the convenience. The railroads and the committee members supported a federal policy to decide which crossings to leave open.

Hamberger recommended driver education programs such as Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that has been educating drivers about railroad crossings in 49 states since 1972.

Mead criticized the Federal Railroad Administration, which fined railroads for only 5 percent of critical safety defects, including malfunctioning signals and sight-line obstructions, identified by inspectors. Those fines totaled $271,000 in 2003.

The Federal Railroad Administration has since put a new plan in place and fined one railroad $298,000 for violations related to a collision in Henrietta, N.Y., Mead said. The crash resulted in two deaths at a crossing where railroad employees had disabled a warning signal seven days earlier. The New York attorney general's office aggressively pursued the case.

"That level of penalty can be expected to focus railroads' attention on crossing safety," Mead said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said train accidents in his state resulted in 26 deaths in 2004. He proposed legislation that would require the closing of 1 percent of all public and private grade crossings per year over the next 10 years. Those would be ranked by priority according to potential hazards, he said.

Congress will continue to hold hearings examining railroad crossing safety and what should be done to prevent collisions.


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