U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the testimony he heard Thursday from rail regulators like the Federal Railroad Administration and the NTSB was both “revealing and dramatic.”
On Thursday, Blumenthal chaired the first meeting of the Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation to examine the current state of safety on the nation’s passenger and freight rail networks.
What did he learn?
He said like the financial services industry before 2008 at some point the railroads “captured” the regulators.
“Federal watchdogs have basically been asleep at the switch,” Blumenthal said Friday during a press conference at the Legislative Office Building. “They have been laggard in holding accountable railroads like Metro North.”
He said he expects them to meet a higher standard of safety and reliability when it comes to both passenger and freight rail systems. A number of elected officials who attended the meeting Thursday were “from the Midwest, and many were Republicans,” he said.
Blumenthal painted the issue as a bipartisan one.
“Federal regulators bring asleep or absent are delaying rules and critical safety devices and upgrades and improvements in equipment,” Blumenthal said. Seven key rules have passed their statutory deadlines and are not issued.
He said some of the devices, such as positive train control, could have prevented derailments and possibility even some of the fatalities like the four at Spuyten Duyvil station in the Bronx.
“Very likely four people would be alive today if automatic train control had been implemented,” Blumenthal said.
The device would have slowed the train down automatically as it approached the curve in the track.
In the meantime, Metro-North Railroad, which operates the rails from New Haven to New York, has shared with Connecticut it’s 100 day improvement plan.
Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti agreed to a 100-day plan to improve the railroad’s safety and operational performance in a Feb. 17 meeting with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Blumenthal was not all that impressed since the plan didn’t admittedly offer a “scope, schedule or budget.”
“As it stands, this document is a plan in name only, more a set of aspirations than an actionable roadmap for concrete improvements,” Blumenthal said earlier this week. “Still, I am hopeful that this plan marks the start of long-overdue renewed focus on safety and reliability at Metro-North — both for passengers and workers.”
On Friday, John Hartwell, vice president of the Connecticut Commuter Rail Council, said the 100 day plan focuses on a “culture of safety,” but having a culture of safety doesn’t matter much if the rails and the infrastructure are “old and decrepit.”
It means “your very good people, and your very good systems are going to be fighting every day against the very equipment that they work with,” he said.
He said the tracks were laid during the Civil War era and there are swing bridges over rivers that pre-date World War I.
According to a January report by the Regional Plan Association there’s about $3.6 billion that needs to be put into the infrastructure of the New Haven Line above and beyond what is already budgeted, Hartwell said.
Blumenthal said there are larger investments that need to be made in order to bring the railroad into the 20th century.