There have been three deadly railroad accidents recently in our region: The 2013 derailment in the Bronx that killed four, the 2015 crash in Valhalla, N.Y. that killed six, and a Pennsylvania train crash in May that left eight people dead. After each tragedy, politicians — among them members of Connecticut’s delegation in Washington — proposed legislation intended to prevent similar incidents in the future, knowing their proposed laws will do little to stem the tide of railroad-related deaths.
According to data pulled from the Federal Railroad Administration, the vast majority of deaths that occur on railways do not involve crashes or derailments. There were 942 railway-related deaths nationwide in 2012, 1,009 in 2013 and 1,031 in 2014. Of those, only 4 percent were train accidents including derailments, with another 25 percent listed as “highway-rail deaths,” including crashes at grade crossings such as the Valhalla crash. The rest are right-of-way deaths: 45 percent are “trespasser deaths,” with another 26 percent listed as suicides. Neither categories would be significantly affected by recently proposed legislation.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who, along with Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, among others, has proposed legislation to fund the implementation of positive train controls, including S. 532 and H.R.1291, called the “Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act of 2015.” The problem is that positive train controls may do little to prevent deaths that do not occur at grade crossings.
Blumenthal said during an interview that one difficulty is the wide-ranging manners in which right-of-way railway deaths occur.
“The pedestrian deaths occur in a vast variety of ways,” he said. “Children playing on the tracks, people disoriented inebriated, walking on the tracks, or others who simply commit suicide and who are intent on dying.”
Incidentally, the numbers cited above do include suicides, which the FRA does not factor in to the number of railway deaths and did not actually collect until 2011.
“The goal is to stop all of them, and that is certainly my intention,” Blumenthal said.
Esty, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, acknowledged the problem of right-of-way deaths when extolling the virtues of positive train controls (PTC) before Congress.
“Let me be clear: this funding won’t prevent every single accident,” she told Congress. “In addition to PTC, we do have more work ahead to ensure passenger safety through systems like intelligent grade crossings. The fact that PTC will not prevent every accident should not, cannot be an excuse for this Congress’ failure to act.”
Esty said via email that while positive train controls are not a panacea, implementation would do some good.
“It is an unfortunate fact that the majority of rail-related deaths occur along right-of-ways, she said. “Although positive train control will not prevent all rail-related deaths, we have the opportunity and obligation to act now to implement a live-saving tool that could have prevented recent tragedies, including last month’s deadly derailment.”
According to Kurt Topel, a rail safety advocate and member of the Chicago-based DuPage Railroad Safety Council, said the fault should not necessarily lie with politicians, who may not even be aware of the magnitude of the problem, since “Right of way deaths happen singly and often with no media coverage at all, especially if suicide is suspected.”
“Preventing right of way deaths is a tough nut to crack,” he said. “Historically, the government and industry have relied on the individuals involved to understand the danger and illegality of their actions. Education is necessary, but it hasn’t worked. To make a serious dent in right-of-way deaths, a ‘full court press’ is necessary.”
And then there’s the issue of perception. Blumenthal said that liability and a sense of responsibility plays into how right-of-way deaths are perceived.
“There’s an intuitive or emotional sense that someone who is injured or killed as a pedestrian on the tracks could have avoided it, maybe bears some of the responsibility,” he said. “There’s a general duty to warn and the railroad that fails in the duty to provide some warning might be held liable, although the existence of a train track might be held as sufficient warning in and of itself.”
One issue, according to Topel, is how money for rail safety is appropriated, generally through the highway safety fund.
“A lot of the money is used to close streets (to eliminate a crossing) or to build under- or overpasses (also eliminating a crossing),” he said via email. “To my knowledge, there is no similar fund for rights-of-way or railroad safety generally.”
That being said, Blumenthal believes that the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Act of 2015, as well as last year’s S. 2784, the “Rail Safety Improvement Act,” would go a long way toward slowing down the number of right-of-way deaths.
That legislation “would support research into mechanisms and technology to detect people or objects on the track,” Blumenthal said. “PTC may offer the means to provide a higher margin of safety.”
“There is technology available right now that is able to detect people or objects on the track,” he said. “We’re using technology that dates to 1872, the bells and whistles and bars that come down. The adaptation and addition of that technology is within reach.”
Jordan Fenster is an award-winning freelance journalist. He lives with his family in Fairfield County. He can be reached by or @JordanFenster on Twitter.
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