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USDOT to roll out rail safety action plan

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) unveiled a safety plan designed to prevent train accidents caused by human error, improve hazardous-materials shipment safety via rail, minimize crew fatigue, and improve track-defect detection and safety inspections.

The “National Rail Safety Action Plan” will target the most frequent, highest-risk accident causes, re-focus federal oversight and inspection resources, and accelerate research into technologies designed to improve rail safety, USDOT officials said in a prepared statement.

The department plans to develop a federal rule addressing human error-caused accidents in light of the Norfolk Southern Corp. derailment in Graniteville, S.C., earlier this year. Preliminary findings on the January accident — which killed nine people and injured more than 500 after hazardous materials were released — determined a train crew had improperly aligned a switch back to a mainline. In addition, the USDOT will accelerate research into fatigue’s role in accidents to help railroads determine optimal crew schedules.

In response to a Federal Railroad Administration request on haz-mat safety, the USDOT also will require railroads to provide local communities and emergency responders a ranked listing of the top 25 hazardous materials to be moved through a city. And by July, the FRA will launch a pilot program under which the administration will provide emergency responders real-time information about hazardous materials involved in train accidents via a secure Web site.

The action plan also calls for the USDOT to test devices that detect if switches are in the correct position and low-cost circuits that detect broken rails to reduce accident risks in dark territory; and the FRA to field test technology designed to automatically control train movements and speed, and purchase special rail cars that can automatically inspect track integrity. In addition, the USDOT will implement a national inspection plan designed to assign inspectors and resources to rail safety hot spots.

“While the railroad industry’s overall safety record has improved over the last decade, very serious accidents continue to occur,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. “This step-by-step action plan targets the fundamental factors that cause rail accidents.”

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More News from 5/17/2005