Senate approves rail safety bill

October 1, 2008 7:09:10 PM PDT
A sweeping rail safety reform bill that envisions billions of dollars for Amtrak easily cleared the Senate Wednesday, its passage helped by the Sept. 12 train collision in Los Angeles that killed 25 people. The bill, which passed by a 74-24 vote, now goes to President Bush, who has not indicated whether he'll sign it. The measure requires more rest for workers and technology that can stop a train in its tracks if it's headed for collision.

Such technology would have prevented the disaster in Los Angeles, the Federal Railroad Administration has said.

"What made this dreadful crash all the more tragic was that it might have been avoided," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the bill's author. The vote on the measure shows the determination of lawmakers to make sure this can't happen again, he said.

The bill caps the hours per week rail crews can work, and bars shifts longer than 12 hours. It adds 200 new safety inspectors for the Federal Railroad Administration and requires the installation by 2015 of technology that can put the brakes on a train if it runs a red light or gets off track.

The collision in Los Angeles happened when a Metrolink commuter train failed to stop at a red light and ended up on the same track as an oncoming freight.

So-called "positive train control" technology is now installed only on portions of the Northeast Corridor and the railroads have balked at a congressionally mandated timeline. The Association of American Railroads has suggested the 2015 deadline may not be doable.

The bill also calls for Amtrak to receive $13 billion over five years in subsidies, though Congress will have to separately approve the money year after year. There's a new initiative to encourage private sector development of high-speed rail corridors, $2 billion in grants to states for rail projects and money for Washington, D.C.'s metro system.

Amtrak's previous authorization expired in 2002. The carrier's supporters say a new authorization will allow Amtrak to make long-range plans and take advantage of what they say is a growing appetite for passenger rail.

Bush and Congress have wrangled over Amtrak subsidies for years. He has argued subsidies are excessive - the corporation spends about $3 for every $2 it takes in - but Amtrak runs trains through almost every state, which gives it great support among lawmakers, who have succeeded in restoring cuts proposed by Bush.

Wednesday's vote came hours after the National Transportation Safety Board reported that the engineer running the Metrolink train in L.A. sent a cell phone text message 22 seconds before the crash. The legislation requires a study on the effects of cell phone use in train cabs and gives the transportation secretary authority to ban it. Shortly after the bill passed the Federal Railroad Administration announced an emergency order prohibiting use of cell phones and other electronic devices by train operators.

The last time Congress passed major rail safety reforms was in 1994, but that measure expired in 1998, leaving the Federal Railroad Administration operating under an expired law for the past 10 years.

The bill that passed Wednesday reauthorizes the railroad administration through 2013 and provides $1.6 billion for rail safety programs during that time.