WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board chairman Tuesday told a Senate panel that several steps need to be taken to improve train safety.
NTSB chairman Jim Hall said systems need to be installed to stop or slow a train if an engineer has failed to heed a signal. He said the board has pressed for this since 1969.
Hall also recommended advising passengers of emergency procedures and establishing comprehensive federal standards for the design and construction of rail passenger cars.
And, he said, braking devices should be installed on the ends of all trains.
Hall’s comments came during a hearing on railroad safety before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The hearing revealed an industry struggling to have safety measures keep pace with growth and to resolve conflicts between freight and passenger carriers.
Discussion focused on a rash of rail accidents this year, including the Feb. 16 collision of MARC and Amtrak trains in Silver Spring that killed 11 passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating causes of that accident.
Under review in that accident and discussed at the hearing were a lack of “fail-safe” measures to prevent collisions, inadequate emergency escape routes and the crashworthiness of rail cars.
Hall was joined by several members of Congress in calling for improved safety measures.
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, whose district includes Silver Spring, told the panel there should be tougher federal safety regulations regarding escape windows on trains.
The MARC car in which the Silver Spring victims died met the federal requirement of four safety windows in each car. But witnesses said that in the darkened car, passengers were unable to open the windows and perished in the burning train.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said money should be put “in the federal checkbook to make sure this never happens again.”
She also said there should be a special hearing to review the Maryland accident.
“Something’s wrong somewhere and I’m going to get to the bottom of it,” Mikulski said. “We’ve got to not only walk our talk but walk our tracks.”
The NTSB has made recommendations in the past to improve train safety, but the Federal Railroad Administration has rejected 26 percent of them, Hall said. The FRA is charged with regulating the industry.
FRA administrator Jolene Molitoris said the acceptance rate of these recommendations is increasing. She likened problems of implementing new safety technology in the rail industry to those experienced in improving air safety.
Since the Silver Spring crash, a number of steps have been taken to improve train safety.
The FRA ordered all trains operating on a track without automatic train controls to travel no faster than 30 mph when leaving a station until engineers see that the next signal is clear.
MARC pledged last Wednesday to make every window on its trains an escape window. It also said it would improve signs and instructions on emergency operation of doors. – 30 –
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