Feinstein, Boxer introduce railroad safety bill

California’s U.S. Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, today reacted to last week’s deadly San Fernando Valley train crash by introducing a Rail Collision Prevention Act which would require all major U.S. railroads to install “positive train control” systems designed to avoid collisions.

Positive train control systems combine digital communications with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to monitor train locations and speeds; they can detect excessive speed, improperly aligned switches, whether trains are on the wrong track, unauthorized train movements, and whether trains have missed signals to slow or stop. If engineers do not comply with signals, the system automatically brings the trains to a stop. A report published in March by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee found such systems would prevent 40 to 60 train collisions per year, and on average, prevent seven deaths and 55 injuries per year.

But for now, they’re in use only in limited areas; California has none, despite Southern California having the most track shared by freight and passenger trains in the United States.

The bill would require freight and commuter railroads to come up with plans for such systems within one year of enactment; require these systems to be in place on rail lines designated by the Department of Transportation as high-risk, involving use by major freight and passenger railroads, by the end of 2012; require installation of these systems on all other passenger rail lines and rail lines used to transport hazardous materials by the end of 2014; and authorize the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to assess fines up to $100,000 on rail carriers that fail to comply.

Friday’s head-on collision of a Metrolink commuter train with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, which killed 26 and injured 138, could’ve been prevented with such a system, experts have said. Feinstein said her heart goes out to the families of those killed and to those injured.

“The fact is, this collision could have been avoided had there been a positive train control system in place. In my view, that’s sheer negligence,” she said. “And it should be totally unacceptable to the American people that we have rail systems in which two trains going in opposite directions share a single track – with only a signal light to stop a collision – when technology exists to prevent a crash. This legislation will fix this. Nowhere is this needed more than in Southern California, where the majority of Metrolink’s 388 miles of track are shared with freight trains. We must install positive train control as quickly as possible. There is no excuse for inaction.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.