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House rail-safety hearing targets track conditions, worker fatigue

The public's perception of rail safety — soured by several recent derailments — prompted House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Railroads to hold a hearing June 6.
"When the public perceives the rail industry to be unsafe, it is our job to conduct hearings like this and, if necessary, address the problems through legislation," said Subcommittee Chairman Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), according to a prepared statement.
Although the number of reported rail accidents has declined over the past 10 years, "in today's society of 24-hour news stations, even the smallest accidents are thoroughly scrutinized by the media — and that is not necessarily a bad thing," said Quinn.
Addressing recent derailments, Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Alan Rutter said the accidents are not an indication of fundamental safety deficiencies in the railroad industry, adding that FRA is addressing safety by scrutinizing equipment, hazardous materials transportation, security and workers' rest.
"Fatigue on the part of operating employees has long been an important safety issue," said Rutter, "It is often difficult to prove the exact role that fatigue may have played in a specific accident or what role fatigue plays in accident causation as a general matter."
FRA plans to continue monitoring results from various fatigue research projects and, as needed, take relevant regulatory action and/or recommend legislation.
Meanwhile, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Marion Blakey addressed track safety, citing several accidents investigated by the board that involved substandard track conditions.
"NTSB believes that FRA needs to increase track inspections, and recommends that FRA modify its track inspection program to consider the volume of hazardous materials shipments made over the tracks in determining the frequency and type of track inspections," said Blakey.
Both Blakey and Rutter also discussed deploying Positive Train Control (PTC) systems to boost safety, believing the systems can help avoid accidents by automatically slowing or stopping a train if a crew misses or doesn't comply with a signal.
"Without the installation of PTC systems, preventable collision accidents will continue to occur, and will continue to place railroad employees and the traveling public at risk," said Blakey.
Grade crossings, too, are a hazard to trains and motorists, Blakey said, and she urged the industry to eliminate crossings where possible or install warning devices.
"I plan to meet tomorrow with Administrator Rutter to discuss which of the open safety recommendations can and should be accomplished within the next two years," she said.

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More News from 6/7/2002