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Congress Approves Major Rail Legislation Requiring Anti-Collision Systems Sought by Senators Feinstein and Boxer

-Broad bill also reauthorizes Amtrak, authorizes $1.5 billion for high-speed rail-

Washington, DC – The Senate today passed major rail legislation that includes a key safety provision, strongly pushed by Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both D-Calif.) in the wake of the deadly Metrolink crash near Los Angeles, requiring mandatory collision-avoidance systems on America’s major passenger, commuter and freight lines.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act, approved by the House of Representatives last week, now goes to the White House to await the President’s signature.

“The Metrolink tragedy revealed a great weakness in America’s rail systems.” Senator Feinstein said. “The fact is we have thousands of miles of track where passenger and freight trains share the same track, headed in opposite directions with nothing but an engineer and a signal light to prevent a collision.

“This is simply unacceptable, and Congress got the message. With this legislation, Congress will ensure that there are crash-avoidance systems on all major passenger and freight rail lines. Rail safety in American will finally be significantly upgraded, after years of warnings by the National Transportation Safety Board – and years of denial and resistance by the industry. This is a major step in the right direction, and I urge the President to sign this legislation without delay.

“While Senator Boxer and I worked for an earlier deadline to install positive train control systems, there are things that must be done now to reduce the risk in the interim. First, the legislation gives the Federal Railroad Administration discretion to move up deadlines on high-risk lines. I will encourage them to do so. Second, there should be two engineers on all commuter trains, including Metrolink’s. Third, all commuter trains should have Automatic Train Stop technology. These moves will provide another layer of safety, and restore public confidence in America’s rail lines.”

“Last month’s deadly Metrolink accident made clear the urgent need to fix our rail system and ensure the safety of passengers,” Senator Boxer said. “While Senator Feinstein and I will continue to push for the speedy deployment of positive train control technology, this legislation includes important precautions that will immediately help improve rail safety and help prevent accidents.”

The Rail Safety Improvement Act also authorizes major upgrades to the nation’s passenger rail system, including development of high-speed rail corridors, including one in California that would run from Sacramento to San Diego, subject to voter approval next month.

Key provisions of the legislation include:

  • Mandatory installation of positive train control systems on rail lines shared by passenger, commuter and freight trains; and on freight-only lines used to transport hazardous materials;
  • Limiting freight train crew shifts to 12 hours a day and 276 hours a month, to cut risk of accidents caused by fatigue; authorizing development of rules limiting hours for commuter rail crews;
  • Authorizing more than $13 billion to Amtrak, to allow for purchase of new rolling stock, to rehabilitate bridges, and to make additional capital improvements throughout the entire system, including in California; and
  • Authorizing more than $1.5 billion for grants to states to finance construction and equipment for high-speed rail corridors, including in California. Other corridors eligible for grant funding include those serving New York and New England; Pennsylvania; the Pacific Northwest; the Southeast and South Central states; the Gulf Coast; the Chicago area; and Florida.

“This bill will ensure that we upgrade Amtrak, and provide an initial investment in high-speed rail,” Senator Feinstein said. “This is critical to California’s future. Building high-speed rail will help California’s economy, providing a new way to quickly move people and products through the state. And it will improve quality of life, by reducing traffic congestion and cutting the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.”


National Transportation Safety Board investigators say positive train control technology could have averted the deadly September 12 collision in Chatsworth between a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train carrying 225 people That accident killed 25 and injured 135, 40 of them critically.

Here is how positive train control systems work:

  • Digital communications are combined with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to monitor train locations and speeds;
  • These systems 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.

In March, a report published by the Senate Commerce Committee concluded that installation of positive train control systems in the United States would prevent 40 to 60 train collisions annually. The report also found that, on average, these systems would prevent seven fatalities and 55 injuries per year.

Positive train control systems have been put to use only in limited areas, including the Northeast and between Chicago and Detroit. California has no positive control systems in place, although Southern California has the most track shared by freight and passenger trains in the United States.

Rail safety officials have said that in addition to the recent Metrolink crash, positive train control systems could have prevented several fatal train accidents in recent years, including:

  • The August 23, 2002, crash of a freight train into a Metrolink train in Placentia. In that crash, a Burlington Northern engineer and conductor failed to see a yellow signal warning them to slow down and prepare to stop. Three people on the Metrolink train were killed, and more than 260 were injured;
  • The January 6, 2005, derailment of several railroad cars in Graniteville, South Carolina. A railroad employee failed to properly line a track switch, resulting in the derailment. Chlorine gas was released, and nine people died.

The Automatic Train Stop technology that can be used in the interim triggers an alarm in the locomotive cab if a signal to stop is not heeded. If the alarm is ignored, the system then applies emergency brakes to stop the train.

Key elements of the Rail Safety Improvement Act:

  • Collision avoidance: Mandates installation of positive train control on major railroads and passenger and commuter railroads by December 31, 2015. Includes a grant program for deployment of various positive train control technologies.
  • Increased penalties: Increases maximum penalty for grossly negligent violations, or a pattern of repeated violations, to $100,000, up from $20,000. 
  • Anti-fatigue measures: Prohibits train and signal crews from working in excess of 12 hours a day and 276 hours a month; requires railroads to develop fatigue-management plans through a mandatory risk-reduction program.
  • Training: Establishes minimum training standards for railroad workers; requires certification of conductors.
  • Locomotive cab safety: Permits the Federal Railroad Administration to ban cell phone use, and other distractions, in locomotive cabs.
  • Grade-crossings: Establishes a grant program to provide emergency grade crossing safety improvements at locations where there has been a grade crossing collision involving a school bus or multiple injuries or fatalities.
  • Assistance to accident victims: Directs the National Transportation Safety Board to establish a program to assist victims and their families involved in a passenger rail accident, to be modeled after a similar aviation-disaster program.