By Keith Laing - 01/20/16 06:30 PM EST
The U.S. government collected $15 million in fines from railway companies in 2015 as the Federal Railroad Administration achieved a record 75 percent collection rate for penalties, Obama administration officials said Wednesday.
The FRA said the collection rate last year is a 6 percent increase over 2014 and also the highest percentage of penalties paid in its history.
The agency attributed the increase to "stepped-up" enforcement of federal regulations after the Obama administration and rail companies came under fire for a series of passenger and freight accidents in recent years.
“A strong safety enforcement program is critical to prevent accidents, save lives and move our country forward,” he continued.
The FRA has been under fire from lawmakers after multiple passenger and freight-train accidents involving Amtrak and New York Metro-North trains and oil tankers, raising questions about rail safety.
Lawmakers who have been critical of the rail industry's safety record gave the FRA credit for the increase in the collection rate of fines that were imposed in 2015, but they said the payment percentage should be closer to 100 percent.
“Under the fresh leadership of Administrator Sarah Feinberg, FRA has taken a step in the right direction as it cracks down on safety violations – progress from past years of anemic enforcement," Sen. Richard BlumenthalRichard BlumenthalOvernight Tech: Groups grade Clinton tech agenda | Facebook activates safety check in Istanbul | Another holdup for location data bill Senate faces critical vote on Puerto Rico Reid backs House Puerto Rico bill MORE (D-Conn.) said in a statement.
"But a 75-percent recovery rate is still woefully low, allowing violators to skate by, unconcerned with the ramifications of failure to pay fines in full," he continued. "To ensure the safety of our rails, FRA must be pursuing more robust fines, while never resting until it recovers all of the penalties it levies. I will keep pushing FRA to make this new level of accountability a reality.”
Railroads have maintained that they were focused on safety in 2015, despite their high-profile push for a delay in a mandate to automate trains with technology that safety groups have said would reduce the risk of accidents on the nation's railways.
“America’s freight rail industry has a 24/7 focus on safety, it is an ongoing priority to make the nation’s rail system even safer," the Association of American Railroads said in a statement provided to The Hill.
"Federal statistics show rail safety has been dramatically improving over the last several decades with freight railroads continuously taking action to enhance safe train operations, including ongoing operational reviews, increased track inspections and the use of trackside technology,” the group that lobbies for railroads in Washington continued.
FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said Wednesday that her agency will continue cracking down on railroads that violate federal safety laws and regulations.
"Setting a record for collections is an important milestone, but it is just one element of FRA’s broader effort to achieve a safer rail system,” she said. “As we continue to aggressively enforce safety regulations, FRA will also continue to implement new, innovative solutions to increase safety.”
-This story was updated on Jan. 21 at 4:52 p.m. to correct an earlier version that incorrectly identified the total of the railway fines.