Senators call for more transportation safety funds

Sen. Richard Blumenthal looks on as Sen. Charles

Sen. Richard Blumenthal looks on as Sen. Charles Schumer speaks as they reveal that the Federal Rail Safety Authority (FRA) is underfunded and unable to fully evaluate existing and future rail safety programs across the nation's freight and passenger railroads at a press conference in Grand Central Terminal. (Dec. 15, 2013) (Credit: Bryan Smith)

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A bipartisan budget deal making its way through Congress should include a $15 million boost in federal transportation safety funding to help prevent tragedies such as the deadly Metro-North train derailment, senators from New York and Connecticut said Sunday.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which inspects railways, is "woefully" underfunded, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was joined by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) at a news conference at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

"Not only is it up to the FRA to inspect track and ensure passenger safety, it's up to them to oversee the MTA and make sure they're doing it," he said.


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The Dec. 1 derailment of a Metro-North train in the Bronx near the Spuyten Duyvil station killed four people and injured dozens. The National Transportation Safety Board found the train was traveling 82 mph around a curve with a speed limit of 30 mph and no alarm was sounded when the engineer failed to slow down.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found the FRA has the resources to inspect only 1 percent of the nation's railways each year, Schumer and Blumenthal said.

FRA spokesman Kevin F. Thompson said rail inspections are just one way to ensure safety. The agency also conducts audits, issues reports and advances risk-reduction programs and technology, he said. "Altogether, our approach . . . helped make 2012 the safest year in rail history, with accidents down 43 percent over the past decade," Thompson said in a statement, adding that the FRA appreciates the senators' support for more funds.

In 2013, the FRA's safety and operations budget was $170 million after the sequester cuts. The senators want $15 million more in the 2014 budget.

Increased funds would allow the FRA to bring on 45 additional inspectors, the senators said.

Only a portion of the funds would go toward New York, and the senators did not specify how much.

The House last week passed a two-year bipartisan budget deal that sets discretionary spending at more than $1 trillion. The Senate is set to take up the deal Tuesday.

The FRA Monday begins Operation Deep Dive, a 60-day safety assessment of Metro-North in response to the Bronx crash. The agency will probe track and signal maintenance, mechanical and transportation department communication, and locomotive engineer oversight, among other areas.

MTA spokesman Salvatore Arena said Sunday the agency shares the senators' "concerns about rail safety and are implementing a number of new safety measures in the wake of the Metro-North derailment."

The MTA since the Bronx accident has installed protections at the Spuyten Duyvil curve to automatically apply the train's emergency brakes if the speed is not lowered.

It is developing new protections to automatically enforce speed restrictions at four other "critical" curves by March. The four critical curves are at Yonkers on the Hudson Line, White Plains on the Harlem Line, and Port Chester and Bridgeport on the New Haven Line.

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