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In early October 2008 the U.S. Senate passed the first major rail safety legislation since 1974 agreeing to the bill about a week after the house passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The House must approve the Senate’s version S 1889, or a conference committee must reconcile the two versions. Later this year the legislation is expected to receive President Bush’s signature and become law.

Although overall railroad safety has been improving over the last decade, several notorious incidents over the last few years spurred Congress to act, including the Metrolink train crash that killed 25 people in California on September 12, 2008.

“A lot had to do with the Metrolink crash because it focused the nation’s attention on rail safety” noted Frank Wilner, a United Transportation Union (UTU) spokesman. Wilner added “It’s terrible to say, but without the Metrolink crash this bill would probably not have been ripe for passage”. The BLET, and its national legislative representative, John Tolman, also worked hard and supported the legislation.

Several of the safety legislation highlights include:

· Railroad operating crew hour of service limits are set at a maximum of 276 hours a month, including limbo time. The Senate legislation limits “limbo time” to 40 hours a month for the first year after enactment and 30 hours a month thereafter. Unions had long fought limbo/in-between time not being included in hours of service calculations.

· For the first time the railroad must take into account and have written plans dealing with overall fatigue of crew members in various regions and areas of its railroad system.

· A number of new provisions and techniques will address fatigue as a cause of accidents and injuries.

· Mandating implementation of positive train control (automatic stop) systems by 2015. Although railroads have spent large sums of money on research and development, there had been no regulation or law mandating the usage of these automatic/positive train control systems.

· Mandating a study of railroad employee exposure to nuclear radiation. This author in a previous article had brought safety concerns to the attention of the national media due to a particular exposure of railroad workers over long periods of time to nuclear waste leaving the Oak Ridge nuclear facility near Knoxville, TN. Reports have indicated that CSX and L&N railroad had no radioactive exposure plan or training of its workers for decades.

· Provisions requiring that railroads provide emergency escape breathing apparatus, along with respiratory protection, for all crew members in locomotive cabs.

My Take: Congress is sometimes amazing. This rail safety legislation was languishing in Congress and seemed permanently stalled until the Metrolink disaster. Why do legislators only react and not take action? For instance, the positive train control systems have been favored by the NTSB for many years and it has taken Congress forcing the FRA to act, effectively by requiring implementation by 2015. This is the only way positive train control systems are being implemented. Same old story: see my other recent post about the FRA emergency order cell phone ban.

See other railroad related articles in my law firm’s website library section.

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