GOP chairman wants to avoid 'knee-jerk reaction' to rail crashes

GOP chairman wants to avoid 'knee-jerk reaction' to rail crashes
© ABC News

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterEx-GOP congressman heads to investment bank Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE (R-Pa.) said Wednesday that Congress should avoid making a "knee-jerk reaction" to a recent series of commuter rail crashes. 

Some lawmakers have called for the federal government to take steps to boost the safety of railroad crossings after trains on Amtrak and commuter railways in New York and California collided with vehicles in recent weeks. 

Shuster said it was important for lawmakers to make sure commuter railways are safe for passengers, but he warned against the temptation to issue new regulations for railroad companies. 

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"It's almost always not the railroad's fault that somebody gets hurts or some accident occurs at a grade crossing," he said. "It's the passenger vehicle or the truck trying to run a crossing when it should stop." 

Democrats have blamed the recent spate of commuter rail accidents on dated technology at railroad crossings. 

"Far too many crossings nationwide rely on 19th century technology," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement after a Feb. 24 crash on California's Metrolink commuter railway. "Modern engineering, increased education and stronger enforcement are needed now.”

Shuster said Wednesday that rail companies are already taking steps to reduce the number of collisions between trains and automobiles on their own. 

"The railroad industry is spending 18 percent of its revenues to eliminate grade crossings where they can," he said. "There is a federal and a state role where the road and the rail come together, so the states and the federal government have funded some of those railroad crossing." 

The Pennsylvania lawmaker added that it would be difficult to eliminate collisions at railroad crossings because driver behavior is so unpredictable. 

"I think it's something like 90 percent of the deaths that occur within the railroad industry are because either people run grade crossings or they trespass onto the property and they get run over by a train," he said. "If we could outlaw stupidity, we'd try to do that, but it's a hard thing to do." 

Shuster compared the push for new rail regulations now to the development of the mandate for automatic train control after a 2008 Metrolink crash that rail companies now say will be difficult to meet. 

"[Positive Train Control] for instance, there's a knee jerk reaction that we took," he said. "It was not anything wrong with the train, it was the operator of the train that caused that accident that happened Metrolink in California. "What we have now is we've got this mandate on PTC which the technology is not there [and] there's a problem deploying it." 

The 2008 Metrolink accident involved a commuter and a freight train colliding head-on in a crash that killed more than 20 people. Congress responded to the crash by passing a mandate that rail companies implement the automatic train control technology known as PTC by this year. 

Rail companies have said the deadline is too burdensome to meet. 

"Due to PTC's complexity and the enormity of the implementation task — and the fact that much of the technology PTC requires simply did not exist when the PTC mandate was passed and has had to be developed from scratch — much work remains to be done," the Association of American Railroads said in a post on its website

"Despite railroads' best efforts, various technical and non-technical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible," the AAR continued.  

Shuster said Wednesday that officials with his home state's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia have told him that they will have to divert approximately $200 million from other rail upgrades to meet the automatic train control deadline.  

"They already have a collision avoidance system they believe is fine," he said. "So the government once again has put this mandate on an industry and it's costing them two or three times as they thought and the technology is just not ready."  

He added that lawmakers are "always looking at safety," but he said it would never be possible to completely eliminate railway accidents in the U.S. 

"When you have accidents, they're accidents," he said. "If we don't want to have any accidents, let's stop running railroads."