WASHINGTON – Consumer groups Wednesday criticized a Department of Transportation proposal that they claim could free railroads from legal liability for accidents at railroad-highway crossings – and make them less likely to maintain safe intersections.
The proposal, said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, is a “cruel trick on innocent victims of corporate negligence.” She said it could “excuse the big railroad companies from fulfilling their duty to protect public safety.”
Spokesmen for the consumer groups said they were motivated to speak following the Oct. 25 collision of a school bus and a train in Fox River Grove, Ill., in which seven students were killed.
The DOT proposal, advertised in March, would require state governments to decide the locations and types of warning devices used at highway-rail crossings.
The proposal would require rail companies to maintain the warning devices, but they would no longer be able to decide where they would go.
In some states, rail companies now determine the placement of warning devices.
In Maryland, the state government already controls the placement of warning devices, said Valerie Burnette Edgar, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Highway Administration.
Joseph Belluck, an attorney for the nonprofit Public Citizen, said focusing responsibility for warning devices on state governments would immunize railroads from lawsuits from accident victims and their families.
Belluck said under common law in most states, rail companies can now be held liable in accidents resulting from signal failure or a lack of adequate signals.
Since rail companies would not control installation of warning devices under the proposal, they might contest liability when accidents occur, said John Cameron, a Citizen Action spokesman.
“The rulemaking appears to have one purpose only: to let railroads off the hook when they negligently fail to install an active warning system,” Belluck said.
But David Bolger, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the rule would still hold rail companies liable if the crossing signals were not maintained.
And, he said, it would place responsibility for determining the location of the signals more “appropriately” in the hands of highway officials.
“Railroads should not be in charge of non-railroad issues” such as traffic signals, he said.
Clifford Black, director of public affairs for Amtrak, said his company already consults with state governments regarding placement of warning devices and other issues.
And Carol Steckbeck, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, said the proposed rule “does not change the fact that railroads are responsible for maintaining crossing signals once they are installed.”
Last year, there were 12 accidents at highway-rail crossings in Maryland. Five injuries resulted, but there were no fatalities, according to Federal Railroad Administration records. In the United States, 572 fatalities at railroad-highway crossings were reported last year, which represents one death for every eight accidents, FRA records show. -30-