WASHINGTON — Spurred by the deadly head-on crash of two trains in Chatsworth, congressional negotiators agreed Tuesday to a groundbreaking rail safety reform bill requiring many passenger and freight trains to be equipped with technology that can automatically prevent collisions.
The measure had stalled before Sept. 12, when a Metrolink commuter train crashed into a Union Pacific freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135. It was the worst rail accident in modern California history -- one that might have been avoided, investigators say, if the trains had automatic breaking systems.
The bill, however, would delay the required installation of so-called "positive train control" systems until 2015 for most passenger service and freight trains carrying hazardous materials, a compromise that disappointed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
"No question it's good that there's a deal," Feinstein said, "and I hope that it can be passed before this Congress comes to a close. Yet, I'm very disappointed about the deadline."
Feinstein said she had hoped the railroads would be forced to act by 2012 for "at least the highest-priority single-track lines that carry both passengers and freight."
Metrolink has to share most of its track with freight carriers, whereas many commuter services around the United States have far less competition with freight trains.
The compromise legislation will be put to a vote in the House today and then go to the Senate before Congress is scheduled to adjourn Friday.
The bill would provide $50-million to help pay for the technology, cap the number of hours that freight train crews could work each month at 276 hours -- the current limit is more than 400 hours -- and require the U.S. Department of Transportation to draw up limits for passenger crews. In addition, the bill would require the Federal Railroad Administration to add safety workers.
Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spent part of Tuesday sternly questioning rail officials about the Metrolink crash.
The senators repeatedly expressed frustration over the fact that in Southern California, Metrolink and Union Pacific have to rely solely on single engineers as the last defense against collisions.
Rail industry officials said the most advanced technology is not yet developed enough to dependably work in Southern California's complex web of passenger and freight traffic.
"I can't understand it, I can't be sympathetic with it," Feinstein said during the briefing. "It's an incredible frustration to say you can continue to operate passenger and freight on the same single track with no collision-avoidance system."
The Sept. 12 crash near Chatsworth occurred after a Metrolink engineer failed to heed three signals, warning him that another train was ahead on the same track. The engineer was killed in the crash. Why the signals were apparently missed remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission directed rail companies to immediately order employees not to use cellphones on the job, in part because the Chatsworth engineer had sent and received text messages on the day of the crash.
At one point in the hearing before Boxer and Feinstein, Metrolink Chairman Ron Roberts disclosed that officials with the commuter rail agency were discussing whether to immediately place a second engineer in the cabs of all trains. On an average weekday, Metrolink operates about 145 trains, and adding a second engineer would probably increase the rail line's costs.
However, shortly after Roberts' spoke, Metrolink officials in Los Angeles downplayed the suggestion that two engineers would be used soon.
"I think Ron was correct in saying that we'll consider it," Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said. "But everything is on the table at this point."
Appearing with Roberts were Kitty Higgins, an NTSB board member; Dennis J. Duffy, Union Pacific's vice president for operations; and Joseph H. Boardman, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Some of the toughest questions were aimed at Boardman. The senators bluntly accused his agency of failing to act as a safety regulator over the nation's freight and commuter train services.
In his opening statement, Boardman acknowledged that positive train controls would have prevented the Metrolink crash.
"When something like this collision has happened, we all make the judgment that we have been waiting too long for this 'elusive' technology and we are impatient in wanting a solution now," Boardman said. "I share that impatience. I want action now, and you are providing help in making that happen."
Boxer questioned Boardman about what he could do immediately to help improve safety on rail lines in Southern California.