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OpinionEditorial

Focus on the safety of America’s railroads

The scene of a fatal Amtrak train crash

The scene of a fatal Amtrak train crash in Cayce, S.C., Feb. 4, 2018. Two people were killed and 116 injured. Photo Credit: AP / Tim Dominick

Is it safe to travel by train?

Experts and railroad advocates say yes. But the rash of Amtrak incidents in the last two months — and federal findings released last week that a Long Island Rail Road accident last year, when a train hit a post at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, and a 2016 NJ Transit crash in Hoboken, were predictable and preventable — is enough to give anyone pause about riding the rails. Such a poor safety record demands action.

Adding a new layer of concern, there’s now no one with rail experience in charge of railroad safety nationwide, since the acting head of the Federal Railroad Administration resigned on Saturday. At the moment, a New York attorney named Juan Reyes is, as chief counsel, at the helm, but the leadership hole is significant and troubling.

Amtrak chief executive Richard Anderson said last week that railroads must create the same intense focus on safety that exists in the nation’s airline industry. He’s right. The last fatal commercial passenger airline crash in the United States was in 2009, when a Colgan Air flight crashed approaching Buffalo due to pilot error, killing 50 people. The latest train crash was a week ago in South Carolina. It killed two people and injured 116.

Clearly, there’s more to be done to address safety. Railroads have to improve technology on the trains and tracks, worker training and oversight. They need to minimize human error and problems such as fatigue that play a role in many crashes.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it’s already testing 17,000 employees for sleep apnea in a program that began in 2015. Of 9,729 employees screened, nearly 1,200 were diagnosed with sleep apnea. As long as the condition is treated, federal regulators say, an engineer can still drive trains. But sleep apnea screening isn’t required for all railroad workers nationwide — an easy fix that could save lives.

But that’s not enough. Indeed, Amtrak’s series of fatal crashes in Washington state, North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina, and the frightening incident last week of two Acela train cars uncoupling while speeding through Maryland, all highlight the need for a renewed focus on the federally funded railroad’s safety record, and for specific changes.

Amtrak should prioritize adding technology like positive train control, a computerized monitor on tracks and trains that can slow or stop a train if it’s speeding or not obeying signals. Other lines, including our own commuter railroads, are required to install the same system. The LIRR and NJ Transit are still nowhere close to being done. Their deadline is the end of 2018.

Amtrak also suffers from crumbling infrastructure and decades of reduced investment. It is starting from behind. And while detailed appropriations in the new federal budget won’t be unveiled until March, President Donald Trump previously has suggested significant cuts for Amtrak. All that would do is make Amtrak less safe. Instead, fully fund Amtrak, bring in experienced leadership for the Federal Railroad Administration, implement new technology and, most of all, embrace a culture of safety that will give rail passengers more peace of mind. 

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