In Louisville, former U.S. Transportation Secretary blasts Congr - WDRB 41 Louisville News

In Louisville, former U.S. Transportation Secretary blasts Congress on train safety delay

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BROOKS, Ky. (WDRB) – When a CSX train derailed and caught fire in this small Bullitt County city nearly nine years ago, carloads of burning chemicals sent plumes of black smoke into the air. The fire burned for four days.

Not long after the derailment – and following other deadly passenger rail crashes – Congress gave the nation’s large train operators until the end of 2015 to install new technology meant to prevent similar disasters.

Positive train control involves devices that monitor trains’ location and speed and track signals, activating brakes if a collision is imminent. Its goal is to stop accidents mainly caused by operator error, such as excessive speed.  

“I think that would be a big asset for us as emergency responders and ... folks who live around any kind of derailment area,” said Rob Orkies, chief of the Zoneton Fire District, which responded to the Bullitt County crash. “I could see it as a positive impact.”

But Congress is giving railroads more time to act. The House and Senate agreed this week to move the deadline for making the upgrades until Dec. 31, 2018, after railroads warned lawmakers they weren’t ready and threatened to dramatically slow freight shipments without an extension.

During a visit to Louisville on Thursday, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who represented Illinois in the U.S. House from 1995 until 2009, said the congressional action sends the “wrong message about our priority on safety.”

“If positive train control had been on those tracks on that Philadelphia Amtrak train, that crash (last May) would not have occurred and people would not have been injured or killed,” LaHood, who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, said in an interview with WDRB News.

All but two members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation voted for the 2008 bill requiring the automated system on passenger trains and railroads carrying shipments of some toxic and poisonous chemicals. Then-U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis, R-4th, and former Senator Jim Bunning opposed the measure.

LaHood voted for the bill.

“We need positive train control,” he said. “Congress thought it was a good idea when they passed it. Now to extend the deadline I think is a very bad idea and it sends the wrong message about our priority on safety.”

But Barry Barker, TARC’s executive director and legislative committee chair for the American Public Transportation Association, said railroads simply weren’t able to install the complex network of technology in time.

“The reality of it is that the technology is not there to do what they want to do under the law, so it became a question of: Do you start fining people and shutting down the rail systems or do you give them this two year break?” he said.

Industry groups praised the congressional action. The American Chemistry Council, which had predicted “cascading impacts on the nation’s food, energy, and water supplies,” said the bill will allow critical supplies of chlorine and other chemicals to keep moving.

Kentucky corn growers typically use trucks and barges to move shipments of their grain, so a freight slowdown would have been minimal in Kentucky, said Laura Knoth, executive director of the state’s corn growers association.

But she said rail is the preferred way to move corn in other parts of the country.

“It’s very important for the grain industry,” she said. “In the upper Midwest rail is just critical to get it anywhere."

Through 2014, North American railroads had spent more than $5 billion installing PTC systems, according to the Association of American Railroads. CSX, which operates freight lines in the Louisville area, has spent more than $1.4 billion, spokesman Rob Doolittle said.

CSX doesn’t share detailed figures on how much money it has spent in Kentucky, where upgrades are occurring along routes that carry shipments of hazardous chemicals, he said.

“There’s technology being deployed in many places to support the system,” he said.

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