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File - This Sept. 14, 2008 file photo shows investigators photographing the mangled inside of a Metrolink commuter train in Chatsworth, Calif. Despite a rash of deadly train crashes, the railroad industry’s allies in Congress are trying to push back the deadline for installing technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions to at least 2020, half a century after accident investigators first called for such safety measures. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Influence game: Train safety move delayed decades
First Published Sep 03 2013 12:51 pm • Last Updated Sep 03 2013 12:51 pm

EDITOR’S NOTE — An occasional look at how behind-the-scenes influence is exercised in Washington.

WASHINGTON • It was an accident investigators say didn’t have to happen: Five years ago a commuter train collided head-on with a freight train near Los Angeles, killing 25 and injuring more than 100.

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Technology is available to prevent the most catastrophic collisions, but the railroad industry and its allies in Congress are trying to push back a deadline for installing the systems until at least 2020.

The National Transportation Safety Board had urged as far back as 1970 that railroads install technology to prevent the most catastrophic types of collisions, including head-on crashes. The technology is known as positive train control or PTC.

"It absolutely has to be done, and the sooner the better," said Frank Kohler, a former critical care nurse who was a passenger on the commuter train. He awakened an hour and a half after the accident, on the ground with his head split open. He’s unable to work and suffers from a low tolerance for stress, headaches and memory loss.

"I wish (the safety systems) were in place five or six years ago," Kohler said in an interview. "It would have helped me."

Under a law enacted by Congress a month after the accident, the systems are supposed to be up and running by Dec. 31, 2015. But only a handful of railroads are expected to meet that deadline. The rest of the industry says despite spending billions of dollars on the systems, they face logistical and technical hurdles and need more time. Four senators with industry ties recently introduced a bill to extend the deadline an additional five to seven years.

The delays show how a powerful industry can stall regulations it doesn’t like, even after they’re enacted into law. The NTSB has investigated 27 train crashes that took 63 lives, injured nearly 1,200 and caused millions of dollars in damage over the past decade that officials say could have been prevented had the safety systems been in place.

"This is not an issue where the industry is trying to get out of this mandate," said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads. "We have invested too much in it already, and it is in our best interest to get it done as soon as possible."

But safety, labor and passenger advocates are skeptical that most railroads will ever implement the system without more government pressure.

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"When they are pushing for a five-year extension with no changes you have to wonder if they aren’t hoping that some deregulatory White House will come along before then and just lift the burden," said Ross Capon, president and CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

"It’s one thing to say we can’t get it all done by the end of 2015. It’s quite another thing to say we want a blanket, industry-wide pass for five more years," he said. "That’s suggestive of bad faith."

"For every day that it is delayed, the threat of another accident remains," NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.

Railroads have invested heavily in making their case to Congress. Last year, the industry spent nearly $47 million lobbying the federal government, according to the political money-tracking website OpenSecrets.org. The industry’s 329 registered lobbyists include former Sens. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux, D-La., and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, as well as dozens of former House and Senate aides.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chief sponsor of the bill to extend the safety deadline, has received $672,836 in political contributions from the railroad industry and associated individuals since 1998. One of his top contributors was DM&E Railroad, based in Sioux City, S.D., which had close ties to the South Dakota GOP. It was acquired by Canadian Pacific Railways in 2008.

"I think it’s important that we as Congress be careful not to impose undue regulation on the railroad industry," especially if regulations sap money needed for infrastructure improvements, Thune told a Senate rail safety hearing in June.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., one of the bill’s three original co-sponsors, has received $201,969 in rail industry contributions. Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of BNSF, the nation’s second-largest freight railroad, donated an additional $45,117. Blunt’s chief of staff, Glenn Chambers, is the son of prominent railroad industry lobbyist Ray Chambers. Ray Chambers said he doesn’t discuss legislation with his son.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., another co-sponsor, has received $455,995 in rail industry contributions, including $41,768 from Kansas City Southern, which is headquartered in Kansas City, Mo. The third co-sponsor, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., has received $412,500 in contributions.

The safety system uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train position and speed and stop them from colliding, derailing because of excessive speed, entering track where maintenance is being done or going the wrong way because of a switching mistake. It’s all aimed at preventing human error, which is responsible for about 40 percent of train accidents.

Such a system would be "a game changer" for safety, Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, told the Senate hearing.

A dramatic example of the type of accident PTC is designed to prevent occurred in July in Spain when a train traveling twice the speed limit derailed going around a curve, killing 79 people and injuring dozens more.

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