Editorial: Railroads engage in brinkmanship over safety

A Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a freight train in 2008 in Chatsworth, killing 25 and injuring hundreds.
A Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a freight train in 2008 in Chatsworth, killing 25 and injuring hundreds. Associated Press File Photo

If the railroad industry’s delay and secrecy on oil train safety isn’t frustrating enough, it’s also dragging its feet on installing anti-collision technology required after a horrific 2008 crash in California that killed 25 people.

Railroads essentially are blackmailing Congress, threatening to stop running freight and passenger trains as soon as next month unless they get three more years to install positive train-control systems – which can slow or stop trains in case of human error or negligence – and two years after that to test them.

No one wants a rail shutdown. It would devastate commerce and commuting across the country. So our lawmakers have to go along with the extension. But they should impose firm and final deadlines, with financial penalties to make sure railroads finally meet them.

Granted, it’s a massive undertaking to install the technology on hundreds of locomotives and 60,000 miles of track. The rail industry says it has spent more than $5 billion, hired 2,400 workers and made substantial progress.

Excuses and explanations aside, railroads have had years to prepare. Congress passed the requirement in 2008, in response to the head-on collision between a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth. The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended the technology back in 1970. Just since 2004, the safety board says the system could have prevented or reduced the carnage from 25 incidents that killed 65 people.

Amtrak – notorious for not getting things done on time – has installed the system on nearly all of its busy Washington-to-Boston corridor. Yet most freight and commuter lines weren’t able to meet the deadline.

One reason is that federal regulators dropped the ball. As the Government Accountability Office reported last month, there needs to be stronger oversight by the Federal Railway Administration, which has exempted about 10,000 miles of track.

The railroads are backing a bipartisan bill from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to extend the deadline to 2018, and possibly later if railroads can show they’re still having difficulty. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, who chairs the subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials, is on board as a sponsor. But Sen. Barbara Boxer of California wants any extension tied to passage of a long-term highway funding bill.

Congress should be able to get both done. But it shouldn’t give railroads another goodie they’re seeking. The U.S. Department of Transportation is drafting a rule requiring railroads to develop comprehensive oil spill response plans, as well as worst-case scenarios. But the railroads want a provision in the House transportation bill that would allow the transportation secretary to keep some information secret.

That is a terrible idea. This is crucial information for officials and residents of communities where trains full of oil cars rumble by. The track record on safety regulations shows that if railroads are given an inch, they’ll take a mile.