Positive results from the Metrolink Chatsworth crash

Since I first heard about the crash, I’ve been hoping something good would come out of it, and buried in all the news about the bailout and whatever else was going on yesterday was a Congressional hearing headed up by Senators Feinstein and Boxer, with some necessary grilling taking place. Regrettably I was too busy at work to throw up a live link to the hearing and there’s no full transcript available yet to my knowledge, but both senators have info on their sites linked above, while the Bottleneck Blog has some relevant links to prepared statements and this full LA Times story provides a general summary.

The key things to note:

Spurred by the deadly head-on crash of two trains in Chatsworth, congressional negotiators agreed Tuesday to a groundbreaking rail safety reform bill requiring many passenger and freight trains to be equipped with technology that can automatically prevent collisions.

….

The compromise legislation will be put to a vote in the House today and then go to the Senate before Congress is scheduled to adjourn Friday.

The bill would provide $50-million to help pay for the technology, cap the number of hours that freight train crews could work each month at 276 hours — the current limit is more than 400 hours — and require the U.S. Department of Transportation to draw up limits for passenger crews. In addition, the bill would require the Federal Railroad Administration to add safety workers.

Nothing to object to in any of this, I think. It’s good to keep in mind that this is neither an exact guarantee against a repeat of something like this, nor meant to be an immediate fix (Feinstein herself is quoted at her frustration that the deadline will be 2015). But it’s a recognition that standards need to be improved where possible, and there now seems to be a broader consensus in accepting the positive train control technology standard. At the least, it puts David Solow’s previous — and admittedly, pre-crash — argument about ‘flexibility’ to bed once and for all. (Also, $50 million is chump change against $700 billion, say.)

There were some tart words from both Feinstein and Boxer about it all, too — reminds me why I enjoy having them as my senators:

The senators repeatedly expressed frustration over the fact that in Southern California, Metrolink and Union Pacific have to rely solely on single engineers as the last defense against collisions.

Rail industry officials said the most advanced technology is not yet developed enough to dependably work in Southern California’s complex web of passenger and freight traffic.

“I can’t understand it, I can’t be sympathetic with it,” Feinstein said during the briefing. “It’s an incredible frustration to say you can continue to operate passenger and freight on the same single track with no collision-avoidance system.”

….

Boxer questioned [Joseph H. Boardman, head of the Federal Railroad Administration] about what he could do immediately to help improve safety on rail lines in Southern California.

Unsatisfied with Boardman’s answer that he couldn’t do anything dramatic immediately, Boxer replied: “So you can’t do anything about safety?” then added a few moments later “What powers do you have? What’s your job? You’re sitting there saying you can’t tell them to do anything?. . . . You have the power, you don’t want to do it, you’d rather work with the railroads.”

….

Feinstein left the hourlong hearing clearly exasperated with what she heard, calling the Federal Railroad Administration “an old boys’ club” in an interview.

“I think they sit down and talk to the railroads,” Feinstein said. “I think they do what the railroads want.”

In a statement after congressional negotiators had agreed on the rail safety bill, Boxer noted that, “The Federal Railroad Administrator has the ability under this bill to speed up the timeline” for the installation of automatic breaking systems, “and I trust he will do it.”

One does trust.

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