Collision Avoidance

Federal Legislation Requires Collision Avoidance Systems on All Major U.S. Rail Lines

President Bush has signed into law the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008. Previously passed by the House and then the Senate (by a 74-24 vote), the bill mandates the installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) systems on all commuter railroads and some freight railroads by 2015.

The long-running disagreement on whether the federal government should require railroads to install a comprehensive safety system, known as PTC, quickly gained momentum in the wake of the deadliest Metrolink crash in history.  The tragic accident claimed 25 lives and resulted in 135 injuries on September 12, 2008, when a Metrolink commuter  train forced a switch open, ran through a red light, and slammed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train.

Experts and legislators agree that the collision could have been avoided had there been a positive train control system in place.

For years the implementation of PTC had faced opposition from the rail industry and the Bush administration. In June, the White House had threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill because it needed oversight measures.  The rail industry has repeatedly raised questions on the safety system’s reliability and affordability.

Incredibly, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been operating under an expired law for the past 10 years.  In 1994, Congress passed major rail safety reforms that expired in 1998.

When faced with the aftermath of the deadly Metrolink crash, however, many lawmakers pushed for legislation that would enforce safety in railroads and prevent a collision of that magnitude from ever repeating itself.  Since being introduced in the House in May of 2007, the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008 has become the most comprehensive rail safety bill in more than 30 years.

The new law will significantly raise safety standards on railways.  The following are some of the major provisions of the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008.

Positive Train Control Systems

According to the law, PTC systems that minimize the risk of train collisions and over-speed derailments must be installed on all commuter railroads and certain freight railroads by the end of 2015.  Rail companies are to develop and submit their plan for implementing PTC a year prior to the final installation deadline, by December 31, 2014.

Hours-of-service/Employee Fatigue

Hours-of-service requirements are revised so that employees will be barred from work shifts in excess of 12 hours per day.  It also requires at least 10 uninterrupted hours off duty after a 12-hour shift.  The law also requires that after a consecutive six days of work, the employee must be given 48 hours of uninterrupted time off.  It will also increase penalties for violations related to hours-of-service.

Inspector Staffing

The law increases the number of federal rail safety inspectors and supporting staff by 200 individuals.

Ban Cell Phone Use

The Transportation Secretary is empowered under the law to ban the use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices in train cabs.  Not long after this bill was passed by the House and Senate, however, the FRA announced an emergency order prohibiting the use of personal electronic devices by train operators.

Minimum Training Standards

The FRA is required to set up a program that establishes minimum training standards and certifies conductors within 18 months of the bill becoming a law.

Increased Funding

The Bush Administration has claimed that subsidies to Amtrak are excessive.  The law calls for $13 billion in subsidies for Amtrak over five years and will provide $1.6 billion to fund rail safety programs through 2013.

Bridge Safety

The law calls for the implementation of safety practices that will prevent the deterioration of railroad bridges and reduce the risks associated with bridge failure.

On October 8, 2008, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific, two freight railroads that share track with Metrolink commuter trains, vowed to install advanced safety systems like the PTC three years sooner than the law requires.  In a California State Senate hearing on rail safety, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) announced the news and pledged to hold the freight lines to their promise.

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