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Paul Kiesel
Paul Kiesel
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Bush Administration Strongly Opposed Mandatory Positive Train Controls, Boxer-Feinstein Bill Addresses Metrolink's Negligence

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Just last year, the head of Metrolink warned Congress that any proposals to require updated safety devices on trains, like positive train controls, would involve “substantial cost” and that railroads should be able to have the flexibility to police itself in implementing new systems.

This sentiment has been a long-running argument over the federal government’s ability to require railroads to install safety devices like positive train controls. Positive train control would automatically apply the brakes if an engineer misses a stop signal, which is what caused the Metrolink crash last Friday.

25 people died in Friday’s crash and another 135 were injured. Investigators say that the Metrolink engineer went through a signal that would have warned him to stop until the freight had moved onto a siding.

On Tuesday, speedily responding to the wreck, California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer called for quick action to be taken by Metrolink and other railroads. “This accident happened because of a resistance in the railroad community in America to utilize existing technology to produce fail-safe control of trains,” Feinstein told the Senate floor. “The railroads have resisted [for years], saying these systems are too expensive. Well, how expensive is the loss of human life?”

Around the same time Metrolink was pressing Congress to leave the safety regulation up to the railroads, the Bush Administration was also strongly opposing mandatory positive train controls, saying the technology “has not yet been proven.” However, many experts disagree.

The Boxer-Feinstein bill would mandate the installation of positive train control technology in freight and passenger trains and impose stiffer penalties, including $100,000 fines, for companies, like Metrolink, that fail to comply.

According to The Los Angeles Times, “[T]he rail industry had raised questions of costs and proposed that companies develop systems on their own timeline. David Solow, Metrolink’s CEO, urged a Senate subcommittee in July 2007 to provide ‘as much flexibility in the type of [train control] systems used and their implementation,'” (Los Angeles Times, 9/17/08).

On Monday, the head of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure said the Metrolink crash was preventable, and he accused the railroads of holding up legislation to prevent these type of catastrophic events from occurring in the future.

Feinstein believes that the rail industry’s inaction on matters of safety is negligence, and she said that, “I’ll even go as far to say that I believe it’s criminal negligence not to do so.”

Experts believe that positive train control could prevent 40 to 60 accidents a year, and seven fatalities and 55 injuries a year. This evidence is part of the Boxer-Feinstein bill, which is being touted as stronger than the pending House and Senate bill that address positive train control.

The railroad agencies and Metrolink must not think these lives are worth as much as the cost to implement positive train control and update safety standards or else they would have done so already. It’s outrageous that the loss of 25 lives and injury of countless others is acceptable to Metrolink, when the technology exists, it’s affordable and critical to prevent these accidents from occurring in the future.