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Amtrak disaster renews debate over rail safety

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While the Federal Railroad Administration has said ‘the rails have never been safer’, rail incidents here in our region have been increasing at an alarming rate.

In New York, incidents on the rails have increased by 85 percent in the past 9 years. In New Jersey, incidents are up by over 50 percent during the same period.

Faster trains may be more efficient for riders and the railroads, but without attention to safety, accidents can and have been happening.

In the final moments before Amtrak train 188 derailed outside Philadelphia this week, killing 8 and injuring dozens, the train sped up. It went from under 70 mph to 106 mph.

Technology exists to prevent that from happening. It’s called positive train control. But it was not installed at the location where the train derailed. Investigators say it could have saved lives.

“We feel that had such a system been installed this accident would not have occurred," said National Transportation Board Member Robert Sumwalt.

"Our railroad industry has been allowed to stay in what I would call the dark ages of technology," said national railroad investigator Bob Comer, in an interview with PIX11 Saturday. Comer has parsed through the facts and the wreckage of more than 400 railroad crashes.

The Federal Railroad Administration order Metro-North to add some speed-control devices along it's tracks at key areas after the fatal derailment in 2013 in the Bronx.

He pointed to 3 areas where the railroad industry can take steps to ensure greater safety for passengers and employees.

POSITIVE TRAIN CONTROL

The first being positive train control, or PTC, which has not yet been universally installed across the railroad industry. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the widespread installation of PTC systems by the end of 2015.

However, the Acting Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Sarah Feinberg, stated to the House Subcommittee on Railroads last month: "FRA is concerned that the vast majority of these railroads will not be able to meet the deadline."

Comer says something similar has existed in the trucking industry for decades.

"25 years ago, all of our trucks across the United States had GPS tracking. We knew where every truck was. And yet here we are 25 years later and most, like 98 percent of the railroad industry, have no GPS tracking. And they don't have positive train control."

ONE DRIVER ONLY

Freight trains have a safeguard in the the front cab that passenger trains are missing. Trains carrying cargo must have 2 people manning the controls.

"All of our commuter trains all across the United States, especially in the eastern corridor, have only one person running those trains. If that one person becomes disabled for any reason there is no other person in the cab of those commuter trains to be able to take over."

The NTSB has now asked the FBI to assist them in investigating if a projectile may have played a factor in the crash. The NTSB learned from a conductor on the wrecked train that an engineer driving a separate passenger train in the area had reported over the radio he had been "hit by a rock or shot at". The conductor also told investigators she then heard her engineer report he had also been struck by something.

BUCKLE UP

Comer also points to a third and simple fix that might have lessened the blow of this and other derailments.

"Seat belts are required in all motor vehicles," Comer said. He points to the Metro North derailment in the Bronx as a prime example of why trains traveling at high speeds need this basic safety measure, "People were thrown out broken windows, according to the reports. If they had been belted, I think there maybe wouldn't have been any fatalities and the terrible injuries might have been less."

FUNDING

Just this week, House Republicans voted to slash funding to Amtrak by about $250 million dollars. Democrats failed to push through amendments that would more than double rail funding.

House Speaker John Boehner dismissed the idea that funding cuts played a role in this or future crashes.

"No money was cut from rail safety," said Boehner.

$226 million was allotted for rail safety and research spending, which is the same level as last year.

However, the FRA says that a key reason why commuter rail operators are struggling to implement life-saving technologies by Congress' December 2015 deadline is: "commuter rail operations are cash-strapped".