Mackenzie Souser appears at left with her her mother, Claudia Souser, and… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — Sometimes in the din of Capitol Hill, it takes a personal story to grab the attention of lawmakers and spotlight an issue.
Such was the case Thursday when 15-year-old Mackenzie Souser, whose father died in the 2008 Chatsworth train crash, tearfully said at a congressional hearing: "I am simply not a normal teenager anymore without my dad."
"I struggle every day with the fact that my dad, who was the sole breadwinner for our family, isn't coming home from work ever again," she told a House panel, putting a human face on the debate over victims' compensation.
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She was invited to testify by her congressman, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who is seeking to pressure Veolia Transportation to voluntarily pay beyond a $200-million federal cap for death and injury claims in a passenger train crash.
The teenager's father, Doyle, 56, was among 25 people killed and 135 injured when a Metrolink train collided head-on with a freight train. One of the deadliest rail crashes in California history occurred when a text-messaging Metrolink engineer failed to stop at a red signal, federal investigators said. A Veolia subsidiary employed the engineer.
The hearing came as the American Public Transportation Assn. urged the committee to approve a three-year extension of the 2015 deadline to roll out a high-tech braking system for the nation's major passenger railroads.
Although Metrolink, the five-county Southern California commuter rail agency, is moving ahead to put a $200-million system in place by the end of next year, Joseph J. Giulietti, executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, told the panel on behalf of the association that rail operators faced "major obstacles" to meeting the deadline "related to both funding and technology."
Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa), chairman of the House railroads subcommittee, expressed some support for the association's request, calling the braking system mandate "an example of regulatory overreach." He said in an interview that the systems were not only costlier than expected but could drain money from other safety programs.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) vowed to push to preserve the mandate. And Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa issued a statement urging Congress to maintain the deadline.
"Los Angeles knows all too well the perils of living with passenger and freight trains bereft of these lifesaving measures," Villaraigosa said.
The braking system, a priority for California lawmakers after the Chatsworth crash, is likely to become an issue in Congress' budget battle. The $50 million in federal funds set aside this year to help rail lines install the systems has been targeted in the House GOP drive to reduce the budget deficit.
The most dramatic moment of the rail safety hearing — often dry meetings attended by bureaucrats and lobbyists — was Mackenzie Souser's testimony.
A 10th-grader from Camarillo, she was accompanied by her mother, Claudia, and the family's attorney, Mark O. Hiepler. She urged lawmakers to "hold those who refuse to follow or enforce important railroad safety rules 100% responsible for the harm that they may cause."
"My dad always taught me to accept full responsibility in any circumstances where I ever hurt someone," she said.
Gallegly called on Veolia to "do the right thing" and offer more money to the victims, suggesting it follow oil giant BP, which set up a $20-billion compensation fund for gulf oil spill victims, despite a legal cap of $75 million for economic damages.
"I refuse to call what happened on Sept. 12, 2008, an accident," he told the committee, bringing with him a chart showing the engineer's history of on-the-job texting.
A judge has approved a $200-million settlement fund and another judge has begun hearings on how the money should be divided among victims and survivors.
Though no one from Veolia testified, the company sent a letter to the committee saying, "Only a small number of claimants and their trial lawyers have publicly expressed the view that the $200 million is inadequate financial recovery.
"The only alternative to the $200-million recovery fund was protracted litigation that would have delayed recovery for the victims and their families for years to come," Mark L. Joseph, Veolia's vice chairman and chief executive, wrote.
Gallegly has introduced legislation to increase the cap to $275 million. But a similar bill he introduced in the last session languished in the face of opposition from the American Public Transportation Assn., which contends that it would raise insurance costs "without recognizing the impact on the riders who will pay higher ticket costs and the taxpayers who finance commuter rail."
Veolia lobbyists also have worked to thwart the legislation, records show. A company spokesman said the company was particularly opposed to the attempt to make the higher limit retroactive and applicable only to private companies.