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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

Rail safety bill passes muster in the Senate


Last week, the U.S. Senate approved the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act (S. 1889), which aims to improve safety for railroad employees, train passengers, and people who reside next to or drive across tracks.

The bill would renew federal rail safety programs that have not been reauthorized since 1994, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) — who helped author the bill — in a prepared statement.

S. 1889 would address rail employee fatigue under "hours of service" laws by setting new limits on the number of hours train crew members can work in a month (currently, some employees work 400 hours a month). In addition, the bill would authorize the U.S. Department of Transportation to update hours-of-service rules and guarantee that workers receive at least 10 hours of off-duty time within a 24-hour period, and reduce "limbo time" — the hours spent traveling or waiting to travel to and from work.

S. 1889 also would require railroads to address their most pressing safety problems by using the latest technology, such as positive train control; require states and railroads to report how they are protecting grade crossings and make oncoming trains more visible to motorists and pedestrians crossing tracks; and mandate that railroads post a toll-free phone number at crossings so the public can report safety problems, such as faulty warning devices.

"A 21st Century rail system cannot run safely on laws from decades ago. We are risking too much by letting train crews work too long and leaving highway crossings unsafe," said Lautenberg, who first introduced the bill last year.

S. 1889 is the "first meaningful rail safety bill in two decades" and "poised to become law later this year," said United Transportation Union (UTU) officials.

A similar measure — the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act (H.R. 2095) — passed the House last year. That bill proposes to re-designate the Federal Railroad Administration as the Federal Railroad Safety Administration; S. 1889 would establish a chief safety office at the FRA, which would retain its name.

"When Congress returns after Labor Day from a five-week recess ... a joint House-Senate conference committee will iron out differences in the two bills and return a single, final version to both chambers for approval," UTU officials said in a news item posted on the union's Web site. "President Bush is expected to sign that final measure, owing to its bipartisan support.

Per the UTU's request, the Senate bill contains a provision that would delay hours-of-service changes affecting passenger and commuter railroads for three years to provide time for further study, union officials said.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 8/5/2008