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House Dems file $1B rail safety bill

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By Keith Laing – 03/19/15 10:58 AM EDT

A group of House Democrats is calling for Congress to spend $1 billion over the next five years on boosting the safety of U.S. commuter railways after a string of recent accidents.

The funding is contained in a piece of legislation introduced by Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) that has been dubbed the Reassuring Adequate Investment in Lifesaving Systems (RAILS) Act.

The lawmakers said the measure calls for spending $200 million per year on “positive train control safety technologies, rail integrity inspection systems, a system for electronic communication regarding hazardous material rail shipments, and other new rail safety items.”


“Representing a district that includes four commuter rail lines, Amtrak, and six of the country’s seven Class I freight railroads, I understand how important rail safety is,” Lipinski said in a statement.  “This bill dedicates funding and resources to benefit the safety of millions of Americans as a key part of the Chicagoland economy moves to modernize its safety systems to comply with the positive train control requirement.”

The introduction of the legislation comes weeks after lawmakers in the Republican-led House passed a passenger rail bill that authorized $7.8 billion for Amtrak.

The sponsors of the new legislation said it is important to boost funding for the nation’s other commuter railways as well.

“As the nation’s rail hub, nowhere are investments in safety technology more crucial than in Chicago. Yet, commuter railroads like Metra lack the funding necessary to ensure new safety technologies, like positive train control, are implemented the right way,” Quigley said.  “Reauthorizing the Rail Safety Technology Grant program will provide the critical funding and support needed for commuter railroads around the country to modernize their infrastructure and keep their passengers safe.”

The 2008 rail safety bill contained a mandate for the automatic railway navigation systems that are known as Positive Train Control (PTC) that have become controversial in the intervening years.

The 2008 measure required rail companies to have the PTC automatic control systems in place by this year. The mandate was enacted in the wake of a crash on California’s Metrolink commuter railway that year that involved a commuter and a freight train colliding head-on in a crash that killed more than 20 people.

Rail companies have said since then the deadline is too burdensome to meet.

“Due to PTC’s complexity and the enormity of the implementation task — and the fact that much of the technology PTC requires simply did not exist when the PTC mandate was passed and has had to be developed from scratch — much work remains to be done,” the Association of American Railroads said in a post on its website.

“Despite railroads’ best efforts, various technical and non-technical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible,” the AAR continued.

Republicans have warned of the dangers of overreacting to a recent string of accidents on Amtrak and commuter railways in New York and California.

“I think it’s something like 90 percent of the deaths that occur within the railroad industry are because either people run grade crossings or they trespass onto the property and they get run over by a train,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said during a briefing with reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday.

“If we could outlaw stupidity, we’d try to do that, but it’s a hard thing to do,” Shuster continued.

The sponsors of the new legislation said their measure would help rail companies get over the finish line with automatic train control, despite the GOP’s admonitions about over-regulating the rail industry.

“The Railroad Safety Technology Grant Program was first authorized under the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008,” the lawmakers’ offices said in a statement. “The program authorizes the Department of Transportation to provide grants to passenger and freight rail carriers, railroad suppliers, and state and local governments for projects that have a public benefit of improved railroad safety and efficiency. Reps. Quigley and Lipinski helped set aside $60 million in the FY14 omnibus to fund this project in its final year.”

The measure is cosponsored by Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.).