Sen. Feinstein: New York train crash shows safety goals must be met

First responders work the scene of the Metro-North passenger train derailment Sunday in the Bronx. Four people were killed and dozens hurt.
(Craig Ruttle / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – After New York’s deadly train derailment, Congress should hold firm to a 2015 deadline for railroads to install systems that will automatically slow down or stop trains if engineers exceed speed limits or are on a collision course with another train, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday.

“Sunday’s crash was preventable,’’ Feinstein, a Democrat, said in a letter to Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The Metro-North passenger train was traveling 82 mph on a 30-mph curve when it derailed, killing four and injuring more than 60. A union official this week told reporters that he believed the engineer of the Manhattan-bond train, William Rockefeller, had nodded off moments before the train entered the curve and veered off the tracks.


Feinstein championed 2008 legislation that set a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for railroads to install “positive train control’’ after a Metrolink train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth. The September 2008 collision killed 25 people and injured more than 130. Metrolink officials say they are on schedule to complete installation of the high-tech braking system well ahead of the deadline. The National Transportation Safety Board has long recommended the technology.

The railroad industry has been lobbying lawmakers to extend the deadline to 2020, citing the cost of at least $10 billion and the complexity of implementing the system on about 60,000 miles of track nationwide.

“The fact remains that a revolutionary technology the size and magnitude of what Congress mandated will simply not be fully tested and ready by the 2015 deadline,’’ the Assn. of American Railroads said in a statement. “We are working as fast and as safely as we can to install positive train control, but we must be honest and realistic about what is and is not possible.’’

Feinstein said the system would very likely have prevented the derailment in the Bronx “regardless of whether the over-speed event was caused by mechanical failure or human error.’’

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates Metro-North and other commuter lines in New York, said in a statement provided to The Times that it is working to install positive train control “on the most aggressive schedule possible.’’

But it said that putting the system in place by the 2015 deadline would be “very difficult for the MTA as well as for other commuter railroads.’’

“Much of the technology is still under development and is untested and unproven for commuter railroads the size and complexity of Metro-North and [Long Island Rail Road], and all of the radio spectrum necessary to operate PTC has not been made available,’’ the statement says.

Some railroads complain that Congress hasn’t followed through on its pledge to provide $250 million to help pay for the technology, providing $50 million so far.

“Congress needs to do its part,’’ the American Public Transportation Assn. said. “Without additional funds, most commuter rail systems, which are all public agencies, will be constrained in their ability to proceed as quickly as possible.’’


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