After a fatal commuter train collision, Congress is hurrying to pass new laws that would limit hours engineers work, mandate technology to stop trains on a collision course and enact the rail industry's first other major reforms in 14 years.
The train oversight and safety agency, the Federal Railroad Administration, has operated under an expired 1994 law, and until the Sept. 12 crash, it looked like Congress would end another legislative session without changes.
Twenty-five people were killed when the Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight train, the nation's deadliest train accident since 1993.
Now lawmakers are scrambling to come up with a final deal by the end of the week on sweeping reforms pushed for years by the National Transportation Safety Board. The House and Senate have passed versions of the bill, but hope to resolve differences before the election recess Friday, according to Senate aides.
"We regulate in this country by counting tombstones," said Barry M. Sweedler, the former director of the NTSB's office of safety recommendations. "If you don't have enough people dead, not much gets done. The pressure isn't there to do it."
In 1993, Amtrak's Sunset Limited jumped the rails on a weakened bridge and plunged into a bayou near Mobile, Ala., killing 47 people.
The following year, Congress passed the Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act of 1994, but it expired four years later and the FRA has operated without new congressional guidance.
Fatigue a contributing factor to accidents
Critics say serious safety issues have gotten short shrift in that time. Among the most pressing are train operator fatigue — which the FRA estimates is at least a contributing factor in 25 percent of serious train accidents — and installation of technology that can engage the brakes if a train misses a signal or gets off-track.
"A 21st century rail system cannot run safely on laws, technology and infrastructure from decades ago," complained Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., author of the Senate version of legislation that would reauthorize the FRA, give it hundreds of new safety inspectors and add a host of new safety rules.
The FRA, which critics view as too compliant with the railroad industry, is lukewarm toward some of the proposed changes, and the railroad industry says heavy regulation isn't the solution. The FRA says it can do its job without new safety inspectors, and while both the FRA and the railroad industry claim they support so-called positive train control technology, neither wants Congress to impose a timeline.
The FRA also wants to set work hours for rail employees, something Congress does under a 1907 law. Train crews are now allowed to work 432 hours per month, compared to 100 hours per month for commercial airline pilots; Lautenberg's bill would cap work at 276 hours per month.
Part of the tension between the FRA, Congress and the industry is an artifact of the long history of railroads in this country, which existed for decades before the FRA was created. Railroads still are responsible for overseeing their own locomotive engineers and have primary responsibility for safety inspections on their own property.
Areas of railroad activity not regulated
George Gavalla, a railroad safety consultant and former head of the Federal Railroad Administration's safety office, said there are large areas of railroad activity that are not subject to federal regulation.
"Over the years, on a piecemeal basis the FRA would issue regulations to specific problems," Gavalla said. "Every time there's an accident ... or if there were recurring accidents of a certain severity, there's a new regulation to address it."
Because of the incremental approach, railroads have developed their own operational rules and safety procedures.
For example, the operator of the Metrolink train that ran a red light in Los Angeles was using his cell phone on duty, the NTSB said. While that was a violation of Metrolink's rules, the FRA has yet to take action on the cell phone issue. Critics say the process is painstakingly slow because an advisory committee that discussed the subject is made up of industry and labor representatives who rarely agree on safety policies.
After the crash, the California Public Utilities Commission seized on what it saw as a lack of federal jurisdiction and voted last week to prohibit train operators from using cell phones while on duty in the state.
The FRA is a relatively small agency compared to the size of the railroad industry. It has about 430 inspectors to oversee an industry with over 235,000 employees and over 1.3 million freight cars running on 220,000 miles of rail track, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.