Recent Train Accidents Propel a Locomotive of Concern about Train Safety!
By Gerri Elder
Recent train accidents have prompted much reaction in the past couple of weeks from diverse groups, from federal and state agencies and specific railway companies to elected representatives and investigative journalists, and ultimately reveal what seems to be a growing concern about specific aspects of train safety.
Train derailments in Montana, South Carolina and Louisiana occurred just last week. Seven hopper cars from the middle of a 99-car train jumped track late in the week at the same spot in Missoula where a Montana train accident led to the spill of the flammable liquid ethanol in June. A South Carolina train accident on the same day involved ten car cars going off track and spilling tons of coal. No personal injuries were reported, which hasn't been the case in recent train accidents that have prompted responses from federal agencies and specific railroad companies.
- The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued a safety advisory in late January urging that maintenance-of-way equipment (MOW) comply with federal regulations and be properly inspected and operated by qualified officials. This FRA safety advisory was prompted in large part by a rail grinder train accident on a line between Sparks, Nevada and Bakersfield, California in November 2006. Ten of 13 cars derailed during this train accident, which led to the deaths of two workers employed by the grinding contractor.
- New Jersey Transit has begun to impose fines on people who walk in front of their stopped trains in the wake of train accidents which led to the deaths of people on the tracks. According to a recent Associated Press story, four people were killed on the New Jersey Coast Line in November of 2006. In an effort to avoid deaths and New Jersey train accident injuries like the ones suffered by a 16-year-old girl who was hit by a northbound train, NJ Transit has already issued more than 50 summonses to violators since the beginning of the New Year. The fine for walking in front of a stopped NJ Transit Train is $54. According to a story in The Ironton Tribune in Ohio, a person or vehicle is hit by a train about every two hours in the United States.
- Metro has recently announced its intention to hire an outside contractor to identify system weaknesses and better train its employees in the wake of some disturbing accidents. Four Metro workers have been killed in three train accidents in a little more than a year, according to a Washington Post story. Just last month, 20 passengers were injured in a Washington, D.C. train derailment near the Mount Vernon Square Station.
While Metro is hoping to better prevent incidents like this recent Washington, D.C. train accident from occurring, a Texas Congressman recently testified in the nation's Capitol about the need for more safety measures in San Antonio, Texas.
- Congressman Charlie Gonzalez testified before the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials about the high numbers of Texas train accidents, especially near San Antonio. Cited examples of San Antonio train accidents included a May 2004 train derailment near a high school that released 5,600 gallons of diesel fuel in the San Antonio River, an April 2004 two-train crash which ruptured a car carrying toxic chlorine gas and killed the conductor and two nearby residents, and a 17-car derailment in October 2006 that destroyed two unoccupied houses. Gonzalez said that the FRA needs to quickly implement National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations to make rail systems safe and rail companies accountable for failing to comply with safety standards.
Gonzalez is not alone in calling out rail companies as journalists have been investigating their practices lately.
- In addition to the disturbing Newsday story in mid-January which detailed the long history of New York gap-related train accidents, a New Jersey television station has investigated the aforementioned NJ Transit following the death of a man. According to witness reports detailed in a WABC-TV Eyewitness News story, John D'agostino died when he was unable to break free from a closed NJ Transit door trapping his arm or jacket and fell under the wheels of the train. NJ Transit examined the case and said that the door was not faulty or responsible for the death. However, the investigative report found that there have been 113 cases in the last three years of these doors causing serious injuries, from bruises and concussions to even dislocated shoulders and a fractured leg. In responding to a question about whether NJ Transit train doors are dangerous, a company spokeswoman said that the company has a safe system and does not have a systemic problem.
These detailed examples about train safety concerns reveal an important lesson. While trains are a safe means of travel for many daily commuters, when accidents do occur and result in severe injuries and even death, tough questions about safety standards will be posed.